By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution prohibits a state appropriation “toward the support of any sectarian school, or to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriations is not conducted as a free school.”
Gov. Phil Bryant said he believes his Opportunity Scholarship Program that would raise private funds to pay for scholarships for low-income students to attend a private kindergarten through 12th grade school would not be prevented by Section 208.
Bryant said his staff researched the issue before making it perhaps the most controversial segment of his education proposals he unveiled last week.
“Parents deserve the right to seek better opportunities for their children, and my proposals put value on school choice,” the Republican governor said in prepared remarks.
Under Bryant’s proposal, businesses or individuals could contribute to a scholarship fund that would be used to allow students in low-performing school districts (graded D or F by state Board of Education standards) to attend a private school.
Children in families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($57,625 annually for a family of four) would qualify for the scholarships.
People who contribute to the Opportunity Scholarship Program would receive a tax credit on their state income tax.
Under Bryant’s proposal, the program would be capped at $10 million annually. That would allow scholarships for roughly 2,100 students. The program would pay to the private school 90 percent of the estimated $5,116 paid to educate a child in the public schools. It would be up to the private school or the parents to make up the difference if private school tuition is more than that.
To participate in the program, Bryant said the private schools “must meet (state) accountability requirements and publicly represent those results.”
Bryant said the state of Florida has language in its Constitution similar to Section 208 in the Mississippi Constitution. In Florida, a true voucher program – direct appropriation of state funds to private schools – has been rejected by the courts. But a program relying on a private donations to a scholarship program in return for a tax credit is currently being used and is expanding, according to various reports.
A court recently rejected Louisiana’s voucher program, which uses direct appropriation of state funds to private schools, but Gov. Bobby Jindal has promised to appeal that ruling.
Bryant conceded if his program is approved by the Legislature it probably will be challenged in court.
He expressed optimism that it could withstand a court challenge.
Of Bryant’s proposal, longtime public education funding advocate Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said, “What that is saying is don’t send tax money to the state treasury. Instead send it to some private school. You have a choice of sending it to the state treasury or to a private school.”
Bryant reasoned the program actually would save state funds that could go back into the public schools since the children in the scholarship program would receive less money via the scholarship for their education than would children in the public schools.