House passes special-needs voucher bill

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State Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth, becomes animated as he fields questions regarding his proposed amendment to a bill to provide vouchers to special-needs children during debate at the Capitol on Wednesday.  (Photo: Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger)

House members on Wednesday approved a pilot program providing up to $6,500 annually for children with special needs who leave public schools for educational services elsewhere.

Despite objections mostly from Democratic lawmakers and opposition from The Parents’ Campaign, the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act passed the House by a vote of 65-51.

“This thing is a long way from the governor,” House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon said about Senate Bill 2695 after nearly an hour of debate.

Authored by state Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, the measure now goes back to the Senate, which can invite negotiations or send it to the governor to sign.

This is the second year that Collins and state Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, had introduced such legislation. Last year’s effort also passed both chambers but died in conference. Gov. Phil Byrant called on lawmakers to send this year’s version to his desk.

“This will give parents real options to find the best education path for their children,” Bryant said in a statement. “I look forward to the Senate concurring and sending the bill to my desk.”

If it becomes law, it will provide vouchers for up to 500 special-needs children whose parents want to withdraw them from public schools, ostensibly because of poor services. Each year, the program will provide an additional 500 vouchers until it reaches its five-year mark, at which time the Legislature must reauthorize it.

Vouchers provide parents $6,500 with which to purchase tuition at an eligible private school, tutoring services, curriculum materials, transportation, testing supplies, therapies and textbooks. The Mississippi Department of Education has oversight, and the PEER Committee would do a biannual review.

Funding for the vouchers would come out of the state’s general fund and not from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program or the local school district.

“We look forward to the Senate passing the bill and sending this historic legislation to Governor Bryant for his signature,” said Patricia Levesque, executive director of Excellence in Education National, a nonprofit group that supports education reform.

But state Rep. Sherra Lane, D-Waynesboro, said public schools will lose $1,426 in federal funding for each student with disabilities who withdraws to participate in the voucher program, citing figures from the Wayne County School District.

If those figures are true for each school district, it could sap as much as $713,000 in federal funds from public schools the first year and up to $3.5 million by the fifth year. Similar concerns were expressed by The Parents’ Campaign.

State Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, questioned the bill’s lack of oversight for private providers of educational services. It requires providers be certified but not by whom. Brown argued anyone can get a worthless certification and set up shop.

“You’re getting ready to open the equivalent of puppy mills for children,” he said.

Other lawmakers offered their own alternatives to the bill in the form of amendments. One by state Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth, would have created a special-needs trust fund within the state Mississippi Department of Health to give up to 4,000 families $1,000 each to help children with disabilities.

Another by state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, would have created the Office of Special Needs Counsel staffed by nine attorneys to help families of special-needs students obtain their federally mandated services from public schools.

Four amendments were introduced in all. None passed.

State Rep. Forrest Hamilton, R-Olive Branch simply argued the bill provides inadequate funds to families of children with disabilities. They need more than $6,500 to get good educational services, he said.

Moore agreed but said the state has only so much money to allocate. It’s better to give some than none at all, though, he added.

“This is not a perfect bill by no means,” said state Rep. Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown in support of the measure. “But we don’t have a perfect world neither, do we?”

Contact Emily Le Coz for the Clarion Ledger at (601) 961-7249 or elecoz@jackson.gannett.com. Follow @emily_lecoz on Twitter.

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