JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi state senators on Thursday voted to keep public subsidies alive through 2024 for special education students who attend private schools, overcoming some Democrats who were trying to kill the state’s Education Scholarship Account program.
The Senate voted to approve Senate Bill 2675 , which extends the current endpoint of the program from 2020, sending it to the House for more work.
Republican Sen. Chad McMahan of Guntown successfully added an amendment that would require any leftover money in the account to be sent to a public school if a student returned to a public school in the middle of the year. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, an Oxford Republican, said unused money now returns to the state’s general fund.
“The school has to take them by law,” McMahan said. “This would provide some money to educate the child.”
Tollison’s original bill called for a wide expansion of the program to many more students, but he changed it to a simple program extension, making it less likely expansion language could be inserted later in the session. Democratic Sen. David Blount of Jackson said he feared McMahan’s amendment could reopen the door to the possibility of big changes. Tollison, though, pledged he wouldn’t support such an overhaul.
“It will not come back any different than how it leaves the Senate,” Tollison told senators. “I have no intention to do that.”
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.
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. That’s one finding from a recent report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, a watchdog group.
PEER, as it’s known, noted 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. A survey of recipients found 91 percent of parents satisfied with the program.
PEER also found that the Mississippi Department of Education fails to prioritize students on the wait list with active special education plans, and that recipients were more likely to be white and better-off financially than public school students statewide.
Democratic Sen. Sollie Norwood of Jackson said the report showed the program should be eliminated.
“Parents were not able to find schools that could meet their children’s needs and parents couldn’t afford the tuition and fees and fee balances,” Norwood said.
But Republican Sen. Michael Watson of Hurley drew different conclusions.
“The one I read, the vast majority of parents were overwhelmingly satisfied,” Watson said.