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AG to appeal lawsuit involving public funds in private schools

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Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office is appealing a recent court ruling that ruled allocating federal money to private schools unconstitutional, according to new documents filed Tuesday.

The Legislature allocated $10 million to private schools at the end of the 2022 session in early April, a move that disappointed some advocates and lawmakers. The funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which gave the Mississippi Legislature $1.8 billion for pandemic response, public services and improvements to water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

The Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Democracy Forward and the Mississippi Justice Center filed a lawsuit challenging the allocation on behalf of Parents for Public Schools, a national nonprofit based in Jackson.

decision which a Hinds County judge issued last monthfound that the distribution violated Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which prohibits allocating any public funds to private schools.

State attorneys argued that because the Legislature allocated money to the Department of Finance and Administration to run the grant program for private schools, rather than directly to those private schools, the laws did not violate the state constitution.

Hinds County Clerk’s Court Judge Crystal Wise Martin’s ruling rejected that argument, emphasizing that the ban on allocating public funds to private schools is not limited to any specific state agency.

“The state cannot avoid the implementation of our Constitution by simply handing over the powers of distribution of allocated funds to the executive branch,” the order reads.

Will Bardwell, an attorney for Democracy Forward, said he was not surprised by the appeal.

“Judge Martin’s decision is thorough and well-reasoned,” Bardwell said. “We feel very comfortable defending this decision at the Supreme Court.”

A judge separately rejected an attempt by the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) to intervene in the lawsuit. Because private schools had to be members of MAIS to be eligible for the money, the group sought to become a party to the lawsuit to protect the interests of its member schools, but both the state and attorneys for Parents of Public Schools said MAIS was introducing new legal matters not relevant to the case.

MAIS also appealed, challenging both the denial of the attempted intervention and the summary judgment.

The attorney general’s office confirmed its intention to reach out to Mississippi Today. The Supreme Court will now consider the case and make further decisions.

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