- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A narrowed version of a special education voucher bill for Mississippi students is moving ahead.

The measure would give debit cards with more than $6,000 on them to parents who withdraw their special education students from public schools. The money could be spent on private school tuition or private tutoring services.

The Senate passed House Bill 765 on a 26-22 vote Wednesday. But House and Senate members would have to work out their differences before the bill could become law.

Supporters say Mississippi’s special education system is so broken that students need an escape hatch.

“Above all, this bill is intended to give a lifeline to parents,” said Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo. “It’s clear that some schools are not meeting their needs.”

While some special education advocates support the bill, others don’t, saying leaving public schools would reduce pressure for improvements for the much larger number of students who would remain behind.

“I just question whether this is the right approach at all,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.

Since the Senate last considered the bill, it’s been amended to ban the use of money for home-schooling, meaning vouchers could only be used for private schooling or for tutoring and therapy.

It would also not allow use of the money for certain students who don’t have an individual education plan but are considered to have disabilities under federal law. Collins said the cards could only be used at schools and businesses that the state Department of Education had preapproved.

The bills cover 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. Mississippi has 66,000 students who have individualized education plans provided for under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, with 56,000 of those in grades above kindergarten.

The bill would initially limit the number of beneficiaries to 500, rising to 700 by the 2018-2019 school year.

Critics complain that a student would get a full per-student share of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program at a time when lawmakers are not fully funding that formula for public school students.

“We’re taking money out of the public schools and I have a problem with that,” said Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-McComb.

Collins said the money would be appropriated separately, and not come from the normal school funding formula.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, offered an amendment to ban spending money at religious schools, saying it violates the state Constitution’s ban on that kind of spending. That amendment was rejected.

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Online: House Bill 765: https://bit.ly/MZPHd2

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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