February 14, 2014 10:43:09 AM
JACKSON -- Proposals to create a state voucher worth more than $6,000 for parents who withdraw their special education student from a Mississippi public school are making progress in the state House and Senate.
Senators passed Senate Bill 2325 Thursday on a 26-23 vote, while representatives passed House Bill 765 on a 61-45 vote. The chambers will exchange bills for more work.
Supporters say too many public school districts are doing a poor job educating special education students, and parents need options including private school or home tutoring.
"We have been waiting 40 years," said Sen Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo. "We can't wait any longer. We need to let out most vulnerable children go and let them have a chance."
Opponents are wary that vouchers could weaken public schools and be an opening wedge for a statewide voucher program.
"This is without question the most extreme, most radical piece of legislation that I have seen on the calendar in either house," said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.
Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi, said he favors the bill even though superintendents have been lobbying against it.
"They think they're going to lose a little money," Gollott said.
The legislation would establish vouchers equal to the amount designated per student under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program plus "categorical funds" for special education.
Critics complain that a student would get a full per-student share of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program at a time when lawmakers are not fully funding that formula for public school students. Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, also questioned whether the bill was allowable under the state Constitution's ban on religious schools.
"Just because you launder it through a fund doesn't make it legitimate," Blount said. "It's public money."
The bills cover students who are currently enrolled in public schools, or are enrolling in elementary or high school for the first time, if they have an individualized education program. In addition to students with such plans, up to 500 students protected from discrimination by federal law because of disabilities would be able to apply.
Mississippi has about 54,000 public school students with an IEP, state officials have said.
Collins promised senators she'll work to make the bill more acceptable, while similar pledges were made in the House. Collins said she envisioned a $3 million appropriation that would cover up to 500 children.
"There are only 240 kids in Louisiana who are doing this, so it's not like it will be a mass exodus," she said.