Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven Credit: Mississippi Senate

The Senate could soon take up a bill that would expand the state’s scholarship program for dyslexic students to allow them to attend special service schools in other states.

House Bill 1046 would allow 6th through 12th graders along with students in the younger grades to participate, and would also allow the per-student cost to follow the child to a nonpublic school provided it is located within a 30-mile range of the student’s home.

The Legislature passed the program in 2012. Previously, the scholarships could be used only at public schools and accredited nonpublic schools in Mississippi.

Under the new bill, however, students would be able to attend schools in surrounding states provided there is no appropriate school in Mississippi within 30 miles of their home.

Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, told the committee the bill is crucial for students in DeSoto County School District who currently do not have access to any of the state’s three specialty schools, all of which are located in the Jackson and Hattiesburg areas.

This bill would make it possible for DeSoto County students to attend schools such as The Bodine School in Memphis.

Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, spoke in support of the bill based on her experience as a 6th grade teacher. She said she had taught children who were dyslexic and never received needed services.

“They wind up being dropouts. It’s desperately needed,” she said.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, expressed concern that expanding the schools eligible to receive state money could lead to vouchers becoming more commonplace.

“My concern is this bill goes too far, further than the bill we passed (a few) years ago,” Blount said. “We’re significantly lessening the requirements we put on schools that would be getting taxpayer money and now sending taxpayer money out of state.”

The bill also would make private schools that are regionally or nationally accredited as opposed to only state accredited eligible for use of the vouchers.

“This is not a voucher bill, it’s simply expanding what we have now,” Blackwell responded.

There are currently 165 students enrolled in the scholarship program this school year. The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.