Committee narrows focus of special-needs bill

TOLLISON

TOLLISON

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – More accountability and fiscal restraints have been added to legislation that would provide funds to parents of special-needs children to pursue private education.

Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said the version of the legislation passed out of his committee Tuesday will limit the number of students who could participate in the program to 500 the first year and no more than 700 in future years.

The program would be for students with Individualized Education Plans. But under the legislation, various types of students with IEPs, ranging from an elementary-age student with a not-so-unusual speech impediment to a student with more severe disabilities, would be eligible for the program.

More than 60,000 students have IEPs.

“This (proposed legislation) would only affect less than 1 percent of the students who have IEPs,” Tollison said. “It would give options for the parents who are frustrated with their current situation.”

The House and Senate Education committees have heard from parents of special education students who have complained about the services offered in the public schools.

The way the legislation, authored by Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, was originally written, it had no limits on the number of students who could participate in the program. Critics of the legislation said it could have taken more than $400 million out of the state coffers at a time when the Legislature is underfunding the public school system by more than $250 million per year based on the formula in state law.

Besides limiting the number of students who could participate in the program, Tollison said under the revisions there would be other safeguards. Any private school that enrolled a special-needs student who received the state funds would have to enter into an agreement with the Department of Education specifying what services would be provided to the student. Any private tutor hired with the state funds would have to have state certification.

Tollison said the money could not go to a student being home-schooled.

He said on average $14,400 per student is being spent by the public schools on special-needs students. He said the $6,000 voucher probably would pay about half the student’s tuition to a private school.

“A parent needs to sit down and do some math before deciding what is the best option,” Tollison said.

Regardless of what happens to the legislation this session, Tollison said he wants a study done to look at issues surrounding special-needs students and what changes might need to be made.

The legislation is expected to go to a conference committee later this session where House and Senate leaders hammer out final details. Various critics of the legislation say the issue should be studied before passing legislation to provide direct payments to parents.

Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, said the legislation “remains very broad, allows private schools receiving vouchers to cherry-pick students, and explicitly states that private voucher schools cannot be regulated or held accountable for the quality of education they provide.”

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com