- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Parallel bills in the Mississippi House and Senate would give more than $6,000 a year in state money to the parent of any special education student who wanted to withdraw their child from their local public school district.

Supporters say too many public school districts are doing a poor job educating special education students, and parents need options including private school or home tutoring.

“Parents are not currently having a voice to say, ‘My child needs this, this and this,’” said Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian.

Crawford said the bill is most closely modeled on a program in Arizona. She proposed a similar bill last year that died when it was never considered by the full House.

Opponents, though, are wary that vouchers could weaken public schools and be an opening wedge for a statewide voucher program.

“I think that special needs kids are being provided for,” said Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. “There should not be an escape hatch. They should be dealt with in the public schools.”

The House and Senate education committees both passed bills supporting the plan Tuesday. The bills would next be considered by the full chambers.

Last year, officials said there were more than 60,000 special education students in Mississippi. Tuesday, they were unable to quantify how many people the bills would cover.

House Bill 765 covers students who are currently enrolled in public schools, or are enrolling in elementary or high school for the first time, if they have an individualized education program. Under federal law, such plans direct the education of students with disabilities. In addition to students with such plans, up to 500 students protected from discrimination by federal law because of disabilities would be able to apply, said Patrice Guilfoyle, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education.

Mississippi has about 54,000 public school students with an IEP, Guilfoyle said. It has about 600 children with more severe disabilities in the second category, she said, with most already being cared for in private facilities.

As the bills are written, students would get the full cost for one student under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, even if the state wasn’t fully funding MAEP. That will be $5,140 in the budget year beginning July 1. Students would also receive an estimated $1,000 from other state aid, supporters said.

Parents could use that money to pay tuition at private schools, hire tutors, pay for online courses or pay for certain other services. If money is left over after a student graduates from high school, it could be used to pay for college tuition.

The bills say no state agency can regulate a private school taking the funds “in any way.” Currently, MDE routinely accredits some private schools, although the level of supervision is less than in public schools.


Online: House Bill 765: https://bit.ly/Ms1QXF


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