April 3, 2014 10:59:03 AM
JACKSON -- Eleven Republicans provided the margin of defeat Wednesday as the House voted 63-57 to reject a bill that would have given vouchers worth more than $6,000 to parents of some Mississippi special education students.
The defeat came only moments after Gunn himself had boosted the bill's chances, ruling that only a majority of the 122-member House was needed for its approval. Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, had in a procedural challenge asked Gunn to rule that a two-thirds majority was required under the state Constitution because the bill granted benefits to individuals.
"This is a policy decision the body is making," he told House members. "Therefore it's a majority vote."
Debate on the bill, which began Tuesday, was set aside after Baria made his challenge so Gunn could confer with legislative lawyers on the issue.
Though House Republican leaders could try to revive the bill if lawmakers continue to meet, the vote appeared to doom what had become one of the most divisive questions of the 2014 Legislature, as House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, declared it dead.
"Obviously there was not enough support to pass this bill, so it is now a resolved matter," Gunn said.
The Senate did not take up the bill after it failed in the House.
Proponents of the measure, led by Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, argued that special education offerings in many public schools are so broken that children deserve an escape hatch.
"This is not about privatizing public education," Crawford said Tuesday. "This is about children getting what they need. It will offer a lifeline to parents who are trapped in their current settings and are exhausted from trying to get schools to address their needs.
The bill was narrowed as the session progressed, banning money from being used for home-schooling, but only at schools, tutors and businesses approved by the state Department of Education.
The initial number of beneficiaries was limited to 500 out of the 66,000 Mississippi students with individualized education plans provided for under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it excluded students who don't have an individual education plans but are considered disabled under federal law.
That would have meant an outlay of more than $3 million in the first year.
The proposal split the community of people who advocate for special education improvements. Opponents were unpersuaded, lining up with politically powerful school superintendents who opposed the plan.
"It was not for the children," said Rep. Pat Nelson, R-Southaven. "It was presented that way, but it opened the door for private school vouchers statewide, and my constituents did not send me down here to vote for that."
Gov Phil Bryant had made a strong push in recent days in favor of the bill, with Bryant sending out a letter urging approval.
"I'm really disappointed. If you look at these children here today, how many could've been helped by that?" Bryant said Wednesday at a Governor's Mansion event with families of autistic children. "It's really disappointing to know that the least among us, these children that need our help the most, won't be able to receive it because somehow we're afraid this might be a voucher program."
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