School vouchers would face state constitution hurdle

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Any efforts to expand school choice in Mississippi by enacting vouchers could be blocked by the state’s Constitution.
Senate Constitution Committee Chairman Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, who has said he would like for the state to at least have “a conversation” about whether to allow school vouchers, admits that Section 208 of the state Constitution might halt that serious conversation from occurring.
Watson has filed a resolution to amend the state Constitution to say “funds may be appropriated to provide grants, scholarships, loans or other assistance to students and to parents of students for educational purposes, including attending any school of their choice.” As Section 208 currently is written, it would appear to prevent public funds from going to private schools.
It takes a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and a majority vote of the electorate to change the Constitution.
With Republicans in charge of both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature for the first time since the 1800s, there has been more talk of extending school choice, including vouchers, to attend private school.
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, said, “I think it is something we should look at. That does not mean I think it is time for us to do it this year … We need to look at everything because our system needs help.”
Collins is a co-author with Watson and Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, of legislation that would provide scholarships to low- and middle-income students in low-performing districts to pay tuition at a different public school or a private school. It also would allow parents sending their children to private school to get a state income tax credit for the private school tuition.
The legislation is dubbed the “Mississippi Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act of 2012.”
The legislation states “parents are best suited to choose the most appropriate means of education for their school-age children.”
Watson admits Section 208 of the Constitution might prevent a voucher plan like the one he has co-authored.
The provision in the state Constitution apparently was among many nationally designed to keep funds from going to Catholic schools. According to various accounts, in the late 1800s as the number of Catholic immigrants coming to the United States increased, they begin to start their own schools because of their dissatisfaction with the strong Protestant influence in the existing schools.
According to a 2007 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 36 other states have similar language in their constitutions. The report said 21 states have “re-endorsed” their so-called Blaine amendment since 1950.
The language is traced back to James Gillespie Blaine of Maine, who served as speaker of the U.S. House in the 1870s. He tried unsuccessfully to amend the U.S. Constitution to include the language. In more recent times, the language led to the courts striking down voucher programs in other states.
The resolution Watson is proposing to amend the Constitution has been double referred – to his Constitution Committee and to the Senate Education Committee. Senate Education Chairman Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said his focus this session is on developing a strong charter school bill to provide parents, especially in poor performing school districts, more public school choices. Charter schools are public schools, but fall outside the normal public school governance.
Not everyone is a fan of vouchers.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said a voucher program would take money away from an already under-funded public school system. He said in most instances vouchers do not pay the entire cost of tuition, meaning that they help some children attend another school, but not those living in extreme poverty.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com