February 1, 2018 10:43:01 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers will debate spending more public money to send children to private schools, as a bill to allow such a plan advanced out of committee to the full Senate on Tuesday.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, an Oxford Republican, acknowledged that the bill would be a "drastic, disruptive change" to Mississippi's educational system, but said that's what's needed.
"Children need options," Tollison said before his committee sent Senate Bill 2623 ahead on a split voice vote. "This world is changing quickly. This is an opportunity to try something different."
The move comes even as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a supporter of the proposal, acknowledged that support for such a plan may be lacking in the House. Proposals there died Tuesday at the deadline for bills to advance out of committees in their originating chamber.
House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, a Long Beach Republican, said he's been focused on rewriting the state's public school funding formula and said no members had asked him to support the bill.
"We have a long way to go to secure enough votes in the House of Representatives, but today's action moves us one step closer to making this a reality," said Reeves, a Republican, in a statement.
Public school advocates oppose the bills, saying they would drain money from public schools and send children to unaccountable private schools that could turn away applicants.
"I really cannot believe we're at this point," said Sen. David Blount, a Jackson Democrat, saying there had been far too little discussion of the proposal. Blount also said that it was too much to tackle in a year when Republican legislative leaders are also pushing the funding formula rewrite.
The state already pays for a few hundred students who need special education or dyslexia services to attend private schools.
Tollison's proposal would initially limit the vouchers to one-half of 1 percent of Mississippi's nearly half a million public school students, or 2,400 children, rising the next year to 1 percent, or 4,800, and then increasing from there. Special education spending would stay at $6,500 a year per student, while students who don't need such services would get about $4,500 a year. Children who need special education services, estimated at more than 60,000 statewide, would retain first priority for the money. Children whose families have incomes of up to two and a half times the poverty level would have the next priority. That's about $60,000 for a family of four.
No longer would children have to attend public school first to qualify. Instead, any student starting kindergarten or first grade would be eligible.
By the fifth year of the bill, nearly 22,000 spots would be available, which Blount noted could cost more than $140 million.
One key question is whether the state would measure academic achievement in such schools and how. Tollison had originally said students had to take a nationally standardized test of their choosing each year, but that results would not be made public. The current version would require schools -- if they have more than 30 students -- to report test results to a legislative watchdog committee, which would have to evaluate "academic outcomes" in a report every three years. Traditional public schools and charter schools must take state-mandated tests each year and are graded on an A-to-F scale, with incentives for high performers and penalties for low performers.
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