By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Parents of children with various special education designations, ranging from autism to a speech impediment to perhaps obesity, could receive $6,000 per year from the state for education purposes under legislation that passed the House and Senate on Thursday.
But supporters of the proposal insisted late Thursday that the House and Senate bills would be “narrowed” later in the legislative process to limit who would qualify for the government funds.
Debate on the Senate bill, authored by Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, lasted about 90 minutes as the bill passed 26-23. Debate on a similar House bill lasted about five minutes late Thursday as it passed 61-45.
Thursday was the deadline to pass bills out of the chamber where they originated. The bill was described as a voucher bill by opponents because it allows public funds to go toward private school education.
But in the House, Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson, a key Democrat, offered an amendment agreed to by the Republican majority leadership to ensure the bill would go to conference late in the session where presumably major changes would be made.
While Brown said he is against vouchers, he said he supported keeping the issue alive because of some of the problems in the public schools with the education of special-needs students.
The Senate bill also has similar language ensuring that it will go to conference where members of the two chambers will continue to work on the legislation.
“We need to narrow it down to more specific disabilities,” Collins said, citing severe physical disabilities, certain types of autism and severe cases of dyslexia as areas where parents might need to be given more options. “We have to talk about that.”
The way the Senate bill is written now, according to Democrats who opposed it, such as Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, more than 65,000 children across the state would qualify for the program, potentially costing the state more than $415 million annually.
Collins said what she envisions is a program for 500 children costing the state $3 million per year.
Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said the money would come from the state general fund. But Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said the program would not be a drain on the state general fund because the money would be diverted to special-needs parents from existing appropriations to public schools.
Currently, the state-local per-pupil expenditure for all public schools is less than $6,000 annually. But Collins said the program would save the state’s public schools money because in many cases the cost to educate a special education student is much more than the average per-pupil expenditure.
Collins said the legislation is needed because Mississippi has the worst graduation rate for special education students in the country. Plus, she said there is an existing law that already provides $600 per year to parents of special education students who choose to pursue a non-public school education for their children. She said she wants to update that law.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, praised Collins’ passion for special education students, but said, “This is without question the most extreme, most radical legislation I have seen in either chamber.”
He said the issue should be studied before taking such a drastic action as providing vouchers that could be used in a litany of ways, including home-schooling of the special-needs student or saving a portion of the money for the student’s college education.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves praised the legislation.
“I applaud Senator Collins for bringing this bill forward to help our state’s most vulnerable citizens,” he said in a statement released soon after passage. “The bill gives parents of special-needs children the option to customize education to the needs of their child and give them the best opportunity for success.”
Sen. Nickey Browning, R-Pontotoc, was the only Senate Republican from Northeast Mississippi to vote against the bill and one of six Republicans overall.
In the House, the vote was largely along party lines.