January 10, 2018 10:11:55 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi parents who support using public money to send more children to private schools are pushing for action in the 2018 legislature.
Leah Ferretti of Cleveland testified Tuesday that her son is benefiting from the state's voucher system, and other children deserve to as well. She said her son's dyslexia went undiagnosed by school officials and they weren't receptive to providing his prescribed therapy, but she was able to send him to private school using state money.
"I refuse to be told that we don't have a choice, that someone else knows what's best for my children," she told senators and representatives.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison confirmed that he plans to introduce a bill that would gradually expand the current program, having the state pay for private schooling not only for students who need special education services, but also for children of low- and middle-income families.
The Oxford Republican has said the bill would initially limit the vouchers to one-half of 1 percent of Mississippi's nearly half a million public school students, or 2,400 children, rising the next year to 1 percent, or 4,800, and then increasing from there. Special education spending would stay at $6,500 a year per student. Supporters of the expansion want about $5,250 for each regular-student voucher.
"There are a lot of kids in public schools across the state that public schools are not a good fit for," Tollison said.
Some advocates of public education say the bill would only hurt underfunded public schools by sending state money to for-profit companies that aren't held to the same standards.
"Taxpayer money should be spent for the public good and there is no public good done by funding schools that reject students they don't want to teach and are not accountable in any way," said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign.
How to measure achievement for the students involved remains a key question. Tollison said he wants to require that private schools give a national standardized test of their choice to confirm that students are learning on grade level, but private schools would not be required to give Mississippi's state tests. Supporters of the plan oppose requiring the state test because it might restrict the private schools' freedom to teach as they please.
"It's very important that we not require the state test," said Grant Callen, executive director of Empower Mississippi, a conservative policy group allied with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that favors expansion.
Tollison said he envisions publishing the results, but Callen said he wants them only to be available to the parents and the school.
Before the session began, the conservative Americans for Prosperity group sent mailers encouraging people to call certain Republicans and urge them to favor expanding the vouchers, but it's not clear whether the mailers had any impact.
"I didn't have one single call asking me to support it," said state Sen. Chad McMahan, a Guntown Republican. "I had multiple calls asking me to oppose it."
McMahan said he would only favor a system that would also allow free transfers among public schools, even across district lines.
"I'm not going to support a flight of public dollars to private schools," he said.
Proponents dispute that diverting state money would hurt local schools, arguing that districts will be able to keep local tax money.
Callen said his group envisions allowing families with incomes up to two and a half times the poverty level to qualify. That's about $60,000 for a family of four.
Supporters were counting votes in the House for expansion last week, but it's unclear if they found a majority to support it.
"Like anything else it boils down to the votes," House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Clinton Republican, said last week. "I am supportive of the concept."
New House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, a Long Beach Republican, says he's unfamiliar with the measure and doesn't know if he'll support it.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant both support the plan, with Bryant saying he'd be willing to help lobby for votes.
"If we can expand school choice, particularly for special-needs children, I would do everything I can to help that effort," Bryant said last week.
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