- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - There was the Mississippi Senate last week, working late into the night, having another Titanic tussle over a school choice program.

Must be a lot of kids affected, right?

Not so much. Between the state’s three charter schools and two programs that pay for children with learning disabilities to attend private schools, fewer than 1,000 students are being served this year. There are 482,000 students in traditional public schools, by contrast.

Though supporters have big dreams and opponents have big fears for what could happen in the future, thus far, charter schools and vouchers are bit players on the Mississippi education scene.

It’s not clear whether that’s going to change. Empower Mississippi, a group pushing expanded options, has set the ambitious goal of having 50,000 students, or just over 10 percent of the state’s current public school population, educated outside traditional public school settings by 2025.

One looming threat to school choice is a Hinds County Chancery Court lawsuit challenging state money for charter schools. Those suing say charter schools are barred from getting state money because they are not overseen by the state superintendent or a local school superintendent, and thus under previous state Supreme Court decisions, don’t qualify as “free schools.”

Even beyond politics and law, there are structural issues working against broad school choice in Mississippi.

Especially for charter schools, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s just not much interest in serving areas outside of Jackson, where more than 500 children are enrolled in three charter schools. Nationwide, charter schools are an urban movement, and Mississippi is a rural state.

When Mississippi lawmakers were debating charter schools, many traveled to a school in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, that’s held up as an example of what could be done in rural areas of Mississippi. That nonprofit group now has five campuses in small towns in Arkansas’ Delta region. But there’s only one other rural charter school in Arkansas. There are 17 charter schools, by contrast, in and around Little Rock.

The early phases of a Mississippi program to pay private school tuition for children with special education needs have faced some of the same issues. The state awarded 425 vouchers, but only 268 children are actually being reimbursed right now. State officials say some parents have had trouble finding private schools to take their children.

Some parts of Mississippi have few private schools, and those that exist may not offer special education programs that every public school system must provide.

The measure senators were debating, House Bill 1046, could help widen participation in the dyslexia voucher program, which currently has 160 enrollees.

It would allow students to stay in private schools through grade 12, instead of ending aid after sixth grade. It would also allow the scholarships to be used at any private school accredited by a state, regional or national group, instead of only those accredited by the Mississippi Department of Education.

The bill would also allow students to spend money outside the state if a parent certifies a child can’t find an appropriate private school within 30 miles.

Grant Callen, president of Empower Mississippi, says the bill will “give students struggling with dyslexia hope and new options for their education.” Opponents warn that it’s yet another move toward full-on private school subsidies. Parents’ Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome calls it “a dangerous voucher bill that threatens local school district funding and sends Mississippi tax dollars out of state to unaccountable private schools.”

That’s a lot of energy on a program with so few students. School choice may be a meaningful part of Mississippi’s education system someday. But it’s not there yet.

___

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

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