By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – A proposal to allow parents of special-needs children to receive $6,000 in state funds annually to pursue private education options remains alive in the Mississippi Legislature.
The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday, which was a key deadline day, 26-22 with five Republicans joining with the Democratic minority to vote against it.
The proposal, which would allow up to 500 special-needs parents to apply for the funds, now goes back to the House. But the legislation is written in such a way that it must go to conference where House and Senate leaders will continue to work on it.
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, a key advocate for the proposal, said it would give parents who have not been satisfied with the public schools another option.
“All the bill is intended to do is give a lifeline to parents,” Collins said during floor debate. While many schools are doing a good job educating special education children, she said, “it is clear that some of the schools are not meeting their needs.”
Collins’ original bill had no limits on the number of parents who could participate in the program. Under the proposal that passed the Senate on Wednesday the number of students who could participate in the program would be limited to 500 the first year and no more than 750 in future years.
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said the bill now contains other safeguards. Any private school that enrolled a special-needs student who received the state funds would have to enter into an agreement with the Department of Education specifying what services would be provided to the student. Any private tutor hired with the state funds would have to have state certification.
The money could not go to a student being home-schooled.
He said on average $14,400 per student is being spent by the public schools on special-needs students. He said the $6,000 voucher probably would pay about half the student’s tuition to a private school.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said instead of focusing on narrow legislation that would affect 500 students, the Legislature should be working with the state superintendent of education to develop plans to provide additional support for all special-needs children.
The only Northeast Mississippi senators to join Collins in voting for the proposal were Tollison and Gary Jackson, R-French Camp. Sen. Rita Potts Parks, R-Corinth, did not vote.