Bryant’s education package clears first hurdle in the House

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Much of Gov. Phil Bryant’s education package, including a proposal that would take funds from the state general fund to pay for private school tuition, passed the House Education Committee Wednesday.
The package passed in two bills. The Education Works bill includes a proposal that would stop many promotions at the third and seventh grade levels if students are not reading on grade level, a pilot merit teacher pay plan and a scholarship program to attract top students to the teaching profession.
The proposal will cost at least $17 million that still must be obtained through the state budgeting process even if the Education Works proposal is eventually passed by both chambers. Language in the bill was added by Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, to say its enactment was contingent on state funding.
“The governor recognizes we don’t want to mandate in K, first, second and third grades to districts if we don’t pass the money to go with it,” said Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon.
The bill will now be considered by the full House. A proposal that would allow students to cross district lines to attend school with the permission of the accepting district was stripped from the bill. It could be taken up separately at a later date.
Private School Aid
Also taken up and passed Wednesday in a separate bill was the governor’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. It provides scholarships to attend private schools for students living in families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level or $57,000 per year for a family of four.
The program would be available for students living in poor performing districts. To participate in the program, a private school must meet certain state guidelines for academic performance. The scholarships would be funded through corporations and people who would receive a state tax credit for their contribution. The program would be capped at $10 million.
The proposal passed with little debate.
Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, pointed out, “If they are getting tax credits, less money is going into the general fund.”
In proposing the program, Bryant said it would give students trapped in poor performing school districts another option.
The Mississippi Economic Policy Center said the program would take $10 million from struggling, underfunded schools while providing money to send 2,570 students to private schools. The Policy Center said there are more than 100,000 students in families earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level in poor performing districts.
Under the program, the Policy Center said parents of a student entering kindergarten who already planned to send the child to private school could take advantage of the scholarship.
The bill was amended in the Education Committee to allow the scholarships to also be used in prekindergarten programs.
Some have argued the scholarship program would be unconstitutional because a section of the Constitution prohibits state funds from being given to non-free schools. Bryant has argued the proposal is constitutional. The Education Committee did not discuss the constitutionality of the bill.
The Opportunities Scholarship Program now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee that also must pass it before it can be considered by the full chamber. Before the full House, the bill will require a three-fifths majority to pass.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com