Lawmakers this week approved $20 million in federal pandemic relief funds to private K-12 schools and private colleges for infrastructure improvements, despite concerns from some that public funds should stay in public schools.
The money comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which gave the Mississippi Legislature $1.8 billion to spend on pandemic response, government services and infrastructure improvements. water, sewer and broadband.
After several rounds of deliberation, the legislature approved grants of $10 million each to private K-12 schools and private colleges and universities.
Private schools must be members of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools or accredited by another regional or national accrediting body to be eligible for the grant. No school may receive more than $100,000 for infrastructure improvement projects related to water, sewer, broadband, or other infrastructure projects authorized under ARPA.
Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said she voted against the measure because she believes the state should not be giving taxpayers’ money to private schools.
“It’s a choice to go to a private school, and they have other methods of funding that our public schools don’t have,” she said.
Nancy Loome of The Parents’ Campaign echoed that sentiment, calling the bill’s passage “a tremendous disappointment.”
“We believe public funds should be used for public schools, not for private schools picking the kids they want to educate,” Loome said. “Right now, public schools are severely underfunded in Mississippi, and it hurts all of us. Every public dollar spent on a private school could be spent on a public school.
Loome also pointed out that the program for public school infrastructure projects that was created this session is a loan program, not a grant like this bill.
For private colleges and universities, funds will be allocated based on a school’s enrollment and schools can apply for grants to spend on water, sewer, broadband, or other permitted infrastructure projects under ARPA. The seven private colleges and universities named in the legislation are Belhaven University, Blue Mountain College, Millsaps College, Mississippi College, Rust College, Tougaloo College, and William Carey University.
Jason Dean, director of the Mississippi Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, was grateful to see the needs of these schools recognized, which he says serve 13,000 students across the state.
“Some private colleges have been serving students in this state for decades, and some of their buildings are literally collapsing,” he said. “While the money can’t go to building new buildings, it can go to water, sewer and HVAC systems, which is important.”
Dean explained that by updating HVAC systems, costs can be covered on energy bills, giving colleges more money to allocate to other things.
Money from both grants must be allocated to schools by December 2024 and spent by December 2026.
This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.