The concern for special needs students demonstrated by bills that passed both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature last week is appropriate and well-founded. Unquestionably there are times when the needs of such students aren’t adequately met by the public school system.
But the shape of those bills and their mechanisms could create more problems than they solve.
The legislation would provide $6,000 to parents of special needs students that they could use to take their children out of public schools and either place them in private schools or have them home-schooled.
Not even considering the question of public funds for private schooling, the way the bills are written encompasses entirely too broad a spectrum of students – basically anyone whom a doctor certifies as having a learning disability.
To their credit, supporters of the legislation – including Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, author of the Senate bill – acknowledge that more work is needed and have placed triggering mechanisms that will assure it goes to a conference committee of Senate and House negotiators. Collins says she sees a need for the legislation to affect only about 500 students statewide, at a cost of about $3 million, while some have projected the bill as written could affect tens of thousands of children and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The bill must be narrowed to ensure that only the most compelling and challenging special needs situations will come under it.
Beyond that, though, is the issue of taxpayer funds being channeled to private schools. While this bill does not technically create school vouchers, the principle is fundamentally the same: Is it good policy to funnel public money into private K-12 education? We’ve never thought so, especially given Mississippi’s history of a private school network largely created in the 1960s and ’70s to avoid racial integration and the Legislature’s failure to fund public schools at the level its own law states. Additionally, private schools, unlike Mississippi’s public education system, are not required to be publicly accountable for how their students fare, which makes directing public funds to them even more problematic.
A fair question is whether the situation for special needs children would be better in the public schools if the Legislature would fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program with the extra teachers and resources that would enable.
At a bare minimum, the legislation passed last week needs to be greatly overhauled and narrowed. Better still would be a solution that did not involve public funds for private schools.