- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 23, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s elected leaders again on Tuesday voiced support for giving parents the choice to pay for private schools using public money, but it’s unclear if such proposals will advance in this year’s Legislature.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, all Republicans, spoke Tuesday at a school choice rally attended by hundreds of students.

“It’s your civil right, your civil liberty, to take your child and enroll them in a school of your choice and not one that the federal or state government tells you to put your children in,” Bryant told attendees.

Conservative groups that organized the rally are pushing for movement on Senate Bill 2623 and House Bill 1339 , which would expand Mississippi’s program that now sends some students who need special education services to private school. The bills would prioritize use of the money by students with disabilities, but also allow students without disabilities to attend, prioritizing those from lower- and middle-income families. In all cases, the aid would be offered to students including those who are just entering kindergarten and first grade who haven’t previously attended public school. The number of slots would start at about 2,400 next year, rise to 4,800 the year after that, and then rise by 1 percent of public school enrollment each year.

Some public school advocates oppose the bills, saying they would drain money away from public schools and send children into private schools that wouldn’t be publicly rated on quality.

“They use words such as ‘choice,’” said Rep. Orlando Paden, a Clarksdale Democrat who watched Tuesday’s rally from the Capitol’s fourth floor. “You have a choice to make the public schools great.”

Gunn and Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison both say they’re waiting to see if there’s enough support to move forward with bills, which must pass out of their originating committees by Jan. 30.

“Like anything else, you’ve got to have the votes,” said Gunn, of Clinton.

Grant Callen is president Empower Mississippi, a school choice group that helped organize Tuesday’s rally. He expressed confidence that the bill would move forward, at least in the Senate.

“I feel good about where we’re at,” he said.

Speeches focused in part on some of the Legislature’s past achievements, such as allowing charter schools and creating the current, smaller special needs scholarship program. Reeves focused on the Legislature’s current effort to rewrite the public school funding formula. Many choice advocates support that change because it links money to each child, which could make it easier to carry to private schools.

“For me personally, it’s not about funding a school system,” Reeves said. “It’s not about even funding a school. It’s about funding every single child in Mississippi.”

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Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy .

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