Mississippi lawmakers unlikely to vote on private school money extension

JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi lawmakers are unlikely to vote this year to extend public subsidies for some special education students who attend private schools.

House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, a Long Beach Republican, said Monday that he intends to kill Senate Bill 2675 . The House Education Committee must vote to advance the bill to the full House before a Tuesday deadline or it will die.

The program lasts through June 30, 2020, meaning legislators can act next year before it expires.

Bennett said he felt the bill was unfair because it would have kept the program alive through 2024, meaning lawmakers elected this fall might not get to consider the program in the next four-year term. The move comes after the House didn’t consider its own bill on the subject. Bennett said support seemed tepid.

“The bill that we had in the House, I let it die,” he said. “Not one representative came to me about the bill.”

Bennett also said he thinks the program needs changes following a report from a legislative watchdog group. The report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review said the program doesn’t track whether recipients are making academic progress, and found a third of scholarship-accepting schools surveyed reported they employed no special education staff. Students at some private schools may be served by special education teachers employed by local public schools, the report found. Federal law requires public schools to provide special education services to some students in private schools.

A survey of recipients found 91 percent of participating parents satisfied with the program.

Right now, the program gets $3 million a year. Groups seeking expansions highlight the fact that there’s a wait list and not everyone who applies gets funded.

“I think legislators are rightfully concerned about how the program has played out,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, which opposes the program.

It’s possible that even though lawmakers didn’t take up the bill, they will choose to spend more in an attempt to clear the waiting list.

Despite the waiting list, though, the program hasn’t been spending all its money every year. Some parents are awarded money, but can’t find a school to take their child. PEER also found that the Mississippi Department of Education fails to prioritize students on the wait list with active special education plans.

A plan that would have allowed broader use of public money to pay private school tuition for any students died last year in the Senate. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, an Oxford Republican, proposed the same bill this year, but amended it to just extend the current program.

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