Dyslexia scholarship bill advances

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An education scholarship bill that opponents describe as a voucher moved through the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday to the full Senate for a vote.

House Bill 1046 would make more students with dyslexia eligible to receive state money to enroll in certain nonpublic schools, even outside of the state.

The bill expands the program from only 1st through 6th graders to students up to 12th grade. It would also allow the per-student cost to follow the child across state lines if there is no appropriate in-state school within 30 miles of the student’s home.

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Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford

Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, presented the bill to the committee, stating that the bill is not a voucher.

“This is a scholarship for students who need different services … so they can overcome their learning disability. I certainly think we need to give every opportunity for a parent to seek those options,” Tollison said.

Legislators from north Mississippi, specifically DeSoto County, and the Gulf Coast have cited a need for the bill.

Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, told fellow legislators that students in DeSoto County don’t have access to any of the state’s specialty schools, all of which are located in the Jackson and Hattiesburg areas. This bill would make it possible for students to attend schools such as The Bodine School in Memphis, he said.

Tollison pointed out that the program has grown significantly from 32 scholarships in 2012 to 165 scholarships this year.

“Obviously there’s a demand in this state for the scholarship,” he said.

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Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville

Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville, said he liked the bill but was concerned about the standards for out of state schools. HB 1046 requires that schools receiving the scholarship be accredited by a state, regional or national organization.

Previously, state law required that the special schools be accredited by Mississippi standards. Current law also does not allow funds to go outside the state.

“My concern is … is it possible even if they’re accredited by a state or national organization they can still fall below Mississippi requirements?” DeBar asked. “I don’t want these students to go to a lesser school.”

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Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson

Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, expressed a similar concern.

“If we’re going to allow state dollars to go out of state we certainly need to make sure it’s going to a reputable institution,” he said. “We’re accounting for the dollars that are going in state, we should account for the dollars going out of state.”

Tollison responded that the schools do have to meet certain qualifications, including having a Mississippi-certified dyslexia therapist on staff.

“I think that’s satisfactory in addition to the parent obviously looking out for the best interest of the child if you’re looking for an alternative” for his or her child, Tollison said.

Nancy Loome, the executive director of the public education advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign, called the bill “dangerous.”

“We learned today that February receipts are coming in $40 million under projections for just this month, so public schools could have further cuts,” Loome said. “We’re not providing our students in public schools the funding that they need and yet this bill would send money to private schools not only in Mississippi but in any other state.”

The bill now heads to the floor for a vote by the full Senate.