Laws still exist in Mississippi from the late 1950s giving the governor the authority to close any school, school district, community college or public university if the state’s chief executive determines it is best for the education of the children.
I should point out here that an astute fellow reporter, who apparently reads the Mississippi legal code for pleasure, recently pointed out the little-known law giving the governor vast authority over the state’s educational system.
My colleague and I discussed whether former Gov. Haley Barbour and his staff were aware of the law when he proposed unsuccessfully to the Legislature massive school district consolidation and university mergers during his second term.
Apparently, under the law, if the governor felt strongly enough about the local school district and university mergers, he could have acted unilaterally to solve the problems as he perceived them to be.
Barbour, who occasionally put his foot in his mouth when it came to matters of race, was an astute enough politician to know how it would look to use a law written in the midst of the state’s anti-integration fight to achieve some of his goals.
No doubt, every proposal to make changes to the state’s sporadically troubled school system is done within the context of what occurred in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when laws and political rhetoric put public schools in jeopardy, all in an effort to avoid school integration. The state’s history often is mentioned as the modern Legislature debates such issues as charter schools and school choice. Mississippi’s Republican leaders counter that any school choice initiative they push is not race-related.
Legislation that passed the House and Senate in differing forms last week provides $6,000 annually for parents of special education children to leave the public schools and pursue a private education, in a private school or in some other manner, for their children.
The bills’ authors, Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo in the Senate, and Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, in the House, speak nobly of helping special-needs children who, statistics show, are not getting an adequate education in the public schools.
No doubt, it is an issue that needs to be addressed and their advocacy for special ed students is admirable.
But under the bills as they are written, literally $400 million-plus could be siphoned out of the state general fund annually to provide vouchers to more than 65,000 students who could have a severe disability or learning issue, or have a simple speech impediment, as many elementary-age children do, or in unusual circumstances be diagnosed with a learning disability because of obesity.
An unnamed friend with children in private schools told me as the bills passed through the process he was excited because one of his children had been diagnosed with a learning disability, though a minor one. Under the legislation the child would be covered. He could enroll the child in the public schools briefly and be eligible to receive the voucher when he transferred the child back to the private school.
Collins and Crawford said that is not their intent.
Collins said she envisions about 500 students statewide being eligible for the help.
But the fact is that the legislation passed two major committees in both the House and Senate without any effort to change it until people began to complain.
That could have been an oversight.
The Mississippi Legislature often works in strange ways, but because of the disdain for public education in the not-too-distant past by the state’s political leaders, it is easy to understand why it is an oversight that is hard for some to ignore.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (662) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.