Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Mississippi House voted down a proposal to provide the parents of some special education children $6,000 annually to pursue private school options.
Eleven Republicans were among the 63 members who voted against the proposal while four Democrats were among the 57 who voted for the measure.
The vote came after House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, ruled that the measure, which he voted for, would require only a simple majority to pass. Members had inquired whether it would take a two-thirds majority since Section 66 of the state Constitution requires that “granting a donation or gratuity in favor of any person or object” required the super majority.
Gunn mulled the issue overnight before announcing after lunch Wednesday that the question was “a public policy issue” for the House and would only require a simple majority.
The controversial bill had been expected to generate lengthy debate, but it didn’t happen. After some silence, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, asked Gunn if he had a written opinion from staff on the issue. Gunn said he did not. After no one said anything else, House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, moved for the vote.
Moore asked that the issue be held on a motion to reconsider, meaning he could try again later in the process to pass it. But the regular session is expected to end as early as today.
Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, the primary House author of the proposal, said before the legislation was defeated, “This is not a fix-all, but it offers a lifeline to parents who feel trapped” in public schools that do not meet their child’s needs.
There are about 65,000 children in the state with individual education plans, meaning they would be eligible for the money if the bill had passed. But only a few could garner the funds.
The bill would have established a pilot program that would be capped at 500 parents for the first two years, and under the proposal would be limited to 700 parents in four years. Children who received the funds would have to leave the public schools.
Supporters say various safeguards were included in the legislation to ensure the funds were not misspent.
Various education support groups, such as the Parents Campaign, argue that the bill would establish a voucher system that would take state funds away from a public school system that has been underfunded by $1.2 billion since 2008, not counting the $255 million shortfall in the budget passed earlier this week by legislators.
Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said the Legislature and others need to study issues surrounding special education students to see where improvements can be made, but said he opposed the bill because it created “a slippery slope” that could lead to the awarding of vouchers to other groups.
State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright has announced the issue will be studied during the upcoming year.