Will Bardwell

Public schools are the bedrock of our democracy. They’re the places where children grow from people to citizens – where kids learn not just about the right to vote, but how to use that right. In the years following the Civil War, Congress understood that guaranteeing children access to a high-quality education was just as important as protecting access to the ballot box.

It is no coincidence, then, that when politicians want to attack democracy, they attack public schools. 

After white supremacists overthrew democratically elected state governments across the South in the late 1870s, they immediately began restricting Black citizens’ access to two institutions: voting and education. That was no accident.

Nor is it an accident that those attacks continue today.

Mississippi’s public education system is, by virtually every metric, one of America’s most underperforming. The most recently available results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that Mississippi eighth-graders scored significantly lower than the national average in both math and reading. Only three states’ fourth-graders showed reading proficiency significantly lower than in Mississippi. Eighth-graders showed lower reading proficiency than all but three states and the District of Columbia.

Then again, these are predictable results: Mississippi’s Legislature has underfunded the state’s school funding formula for 23 of the past 25 years. The only thing that could possibly make matters worse is for the Legislature to divert millions of dollars in public money to private schools. 

So that’s exactly what they did.

In April, during the final hours of the Legislature’s annual session, appropriators snuck through a $10 million giveaway to private schools, funded by a federal COVID relief package. The money came with directions for a state agency to create a program that would provide handouts of up to $100,000 to private schools. The legislation specifically excludes public schools from eligibility.

Funneling public money to private schools isn’t just bad policy. In Mississippi, it’s also unconstitutional.

Before white supremacists returned to power in the late 1870s, Mississippi’s leaders had the good sense to draft a state constitution that forbade sending public funds to private schools. The insurgents enacted a new state constitution in 1890, but even they carried forward that requirement. Today, Section 208 of Mississippi’s Constitution forbids appropriations “to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.”

And when the Legislature violated that requirement, it did more than merely continue Mississippi’s shameful history of undermining its children’s public schools. It broke the law.

So Democracy Forward pushed back.

On behalf of Parents for Public Schools – a national organization made up of thousands of public school parents and supporters – Democracy Forward and co-counsel from the ACLU of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice sued Mississippi officials who are carrying out the Legislature’s private schools giveaway. In August, we argued in Hinds County Chancery Court that the Legislature’s private schools funding program clearly violates Mississippi’s Constitution and must be struck down. A ruling is expected soon.

No matter how the case ends, our fight for public schoolchildren will not be over. Parents shouldn’t have to spend the first weeks of a new school year worrying about whether their children’s schools have enough resources to deliver on the promise of a high-quality education. But for as long as that threat remains, Democracy Forward will fight to hold states to that promise.

Will Bardwell is Senior Counsel at Democracy Forward.