By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
JACKSON — The state House could be roiled by multiple debates in coming days over spending public money to send Mississippi students to private schools.
But prospects for such legislation remain murky in the Senate, where leaders have made no clear show of support for the concept.
The House Education Committee has passed two bills that could pay to send students to private schools. The first, House Bill 906, is a measure called Opportunity Scholarships, proposed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. The second, House Bill 1004, would provide vouchers using public money for the state’s 60,000-plus special education students in public schools to attend private schools.
House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, predicted that some black Democrats would support Bryant’s plan. The GOP leadership has tried to court the group on these issues.
The scholarship bill passed Moore’s committee without audible dissent, although some lawmakers seemed unclear about what it would do.
“I think it’s going to be a strong coalition of votes when it comes through,” he said.
He signaled that the special education measure could be in trouble, though, saying it’s “something we need to look at a little harder before we call it up on the floor.”
The Senate Education Committee didn’t pass any of the private tuition proposals. That could indicate Senate leaders don’t support the plans.
“We’ll just have to wait and see if it passes the House,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford.
What Bryant calls opportunity scholarships would be funded through $10 million in dollar-for-dollar tax credits that people or companies would donate to a scholarship fund run by a group chosen by the state Board of Education. The money could be used to pay private tuition for students whose families have incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level and are zoned for D-rated or F-rated schools.
Those students could use the money to attend any private school in Mississippi that meets certain standards.
Administration officials estimate that $10 million would create close to 2,200 scholarships and say more than 100,000 of Mississippi’s 490,000 public school students would qualify to apply.
Bryant supports the measure as part of what he calls a “choice agenda” that includes calls for charter schools and statewide open enrollment in public schools.
“Let us give parents a choice so children can have a chance,” he said in his State of the State speech.
The House and Senate have passed separate charter school bills that have yet to be reconciled; open enrollment proposals didn’t make it out of committees.
Opponents, though, say that instead of the state forgoing $10 million in tax revenue so it could be passed to private schools, the money should be used to improve public schools. They also say 250 percent of poverty is too high a threshold — $57,625 for a family of four. They warn that the state could end up paying for children whose families would send them to private schools anyway.
“This is the wrong approach for Mississippi’s children and the wrong approach for strengthening public education for all students,” the Mississippi Economic Policy Center said in a Jan. 31 statement.
The special education bill was pushed by Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian. It would allow any student with an individualized education program to apply for state money to attend a private school or transfer to another school district.
The Parents’ Campaign, which lobbies for public school funding, says the bill would be a drain on funding. It also questions whether students would get a better education in private schools.
“The private schools receiving vouchers are not required to provide any special needs services,” the organization wrote, urging members to oppose the measure.
Both measures could face legal challenges if passed. When Mississippi’s constitution was rewritten in 1890, it banned state aid to religious schools.
Such provisions have been a legal obstacle to vouchers, but proponents of public money for private schools have skirted them elsewhere by offering tax credits, as in Bryant’s bill. Lawmakers passed a bill last year that allows dyslexic students to attend special private schools, but it was more narrowly tailored.
Administration officials have said they expect a legal challenge, but they believe a previous court case allows Mississippi to aid students who attend private schools.
House Bill 906: http://bit.ly/YH4UjE
House Bill 1004: http://bit.ly/11Ql5ja
Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.