By Christopher Young,
During the 2022 legislative session, State Senator William Briggs Hopson III, a republican lawyer representing Warren, Yazoo, and Issaquena counties, sponsored a new bill. The bill became known as Senate Bill 2780 and was titled: Budget; provide for various transfers, create several special funds, and create Independent Schools Infrastructure Grant Program. On February 3, 2022, this grant program creation legislation was passed in the Senate 51-0 and on March 8, 2022 it passed in the House, as amended, 118-4, and was signed by the Governor on April 19.
The Hinds County delegation, both in the Senate and the House voted to pass the legislation – 100% of our representatives and senators.
A second related bill, SB 3064, titled: Appropriation; to DFA for the MAICU (Mississippi Association of Independent Colleges and Universities) and Ind (Independent) K-12 Grant Program, – ARPA funds, was added yet this one had five additional republican sponsors, and two democrats from Hinds County; Senators Hillman Frazier and David Blount. Ultimately, the Hinds County delegation voted against the bill, with the exception of J. Walter Michel, yet it passed. On the House side, the measure passed 90-13, on April 5, with Representatives Gunn, Yates, Christopher Bell and Banks voting Yay, Alyce Griffin Clarke voting Nay, and all other members of the Hinds County delegation: Stamps, Summers, Bo Brown, Crudup Jr., Debra Gibbs and Holloway Sr. Abstaining. This bill was also signed by the Governor April 19. All data noted above was found at www.legiscan.com.
The legislation was challenged by Parents for Public Schools in June of this year, and they were represented by the ACLU of Mississippi, Democracy Forward, and the Mississippi Center for Justice. Parents for Public Schools is a non-profit based in Mississippi, yet with a national reach that currently includes chapters in seven states. Their mission is to advance the role of families and communities in securing a high-quality public education for every child.
On October 13, Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Crystal Wise Martin ruled that these grant programs are unconstitutional. The lawsuit cites Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which prohibits the use of public money for any school that is not “a free school.” “Any appropriation of public funds to be received by private schools adversely affects schools and their students,” Martin wrote. “Taxpayer funding for education is finite.” “When public schools have been chronically underfunded, the prescribed unavailability of these public infrastructure funds adversely affects Mississippi public schools, their employees, their students, and the parents of those students differently from the general public,” she wrote in her ruling, per Emily Wagster Pettus of the Associated Press.
Representative Christopher Bell (D-65) shared that he was torn in his decision-making on the measure, but ultimately, “I voted for it because it could help Rust College and Tougaloo College, both private, because they need all the resources they can get – and that their alumni base is not enough by itself.”
We can surely expect to hear more on Judge Martin’s ruling. Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s staff is reviewing the judge’s order and “evaluating next steps” of whether to appeal, chief of staff Michelle Williams told WLBT on the day of the ruling.