Parents, teachers and legislators rally for school choice

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Reeves speaks at a school choice rally in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 24, 2017.

Hundreds of students, joined by parents and teachers, filled the Capitol rotunda Tuesday morning wearing yellow felt scarves adorned with the National School Choice Week logo. They were there to celebrate with legislators and raise awareness of the education options for parents and their children.

“Why should we limit choice just to those who can financially afford it?” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said. Gov. Phil Bryant was scheduled to attend but could not because he is assisting with tornado relief efforts in the Hattiesburg area.

The rally was hosted by Empower Mississippi, a school choice advocacy organization.

National School Choice Week began in 2011 and has taken place every January since. This year, cities across the nation are participating in the week-long event, Jan. 22-28, to bring attention to education options for students, ranging from public schools to charter or magnet schools, private schools and home schooling, among others.

The rally featured a litany of speakers, each sharing how school choice has shaped their child or their community’s ability to learn.

Former District of Columbia city councilman and president of the council’s education committee, Kevin Chavous, spoke at the rally. During his time on the council he advocated for charter schools and expanded a federal scholarship program that gives students access to private schools. Across the nation, school choice deals with “a sense of urgency,” he said.

“We are losing too many kids today to schools that don’t serve their needs,” Chavous said.

Giving parents the ability to enroll a student in a school they know is tailored to their needs is imperative, he said.

“For most parents, they can’t wait three to five years for a local school district to get its act together, if they ever do,” he said. “What they want is some immediate, quality options for their kids today.”

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Jessica and Julia Powell

For Jessica Powell, the Mississippi Department of Education’s dyslexia scholarship program allows her daughter, Julia Powell, to learn in an environment suited to her needs.

“When I realized that my daughter had dyslexia, I really couldn’t find help for her,” she said.

Powell, a fifth-grade teacher, later became a dyslexia therapist at the 3-D School in Petal, where her daughter is enrolled.

“We work hard for our children and we do what we can, but when we’re faced with a hardship of having to find help … the money that follows the children to our school is a great blessing because it cuts our tuition in half,” Powell said.

The dyslexia scholarship program, which gives qualified students scholarships to attend private schools equipped to teach students with dyslexia, is just one of the school choice options offered in Mississippi.

The state’s first charter schools opened their doors in Jackson in August 2015. Charters adhere to the same academic standards as traditional public schools and receive public school funding, but they are independent of the local school districts. Instead, they fall under the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, which allows charter schools more freedom in student instruction.

Bryant signed into law an expansion of charter schools last year — it allows students in districts with a D and C ranking to attend charters. The original law only opened the door to charter schools to those in districts with an F ranking. The new bill also allows students to cross district lines to attend one. The original law required them to attend a charter school in their home district.

The charter school law was challenged in a federal lawsuit filed last July. Plaintiffs in the suit say the state constitution requires property taxes only to be used by the school districts in which they are collected. The suit also claims that state law requires schools receiving state funds to be regulated by the state superintendent of education and the local school district superintendent. The case is pending.

The Mississippi Department of Education also offers a lottery for students to receive disability vouchers, which provide recipients with public education funds to attend private schools. In Mississippi, students with disabilities who are awarded the scholarship receive $6,637 for a year’s worth of private school tuition, books, tutoring or a host of other approved services.

Earlier this month, state Education Superintendent Carey Wright reported to the Legislature that 425 educational scholarship accounts or “ESAs” were approved this school year, but only 274 have applied for reimbursement or used the scholarship. Wright noted that there were an additional 215 students on the waiting list for the vouchers and said the department of education was trying to determine why so many vouchers were going unused.