Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg Credit: Mississippi Senate

After more than two hours of debate, a bill expanding the state’s scholarship program for dyslexic students in public schools to attend private, special purpose schools passed the Senate Wednesday night.

House Bill 1046, which passed 30-19, expands the program to included students in grades 1-12 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. That could include schools in other states.

In arguing for the bill, Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, cited an example of a dyslexic student from Starkville whose parents lived separately for three years while he received services at a special purpose school in the Pine Belt area.

Several lawmakers from the Gulf Coast and North Mississippi supported the bill, pointing out that most of the current special purpose schools in the state are located in the Jackson and Hattiesburg areas.

In the final hour of the discussion on the bill, Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, proposed an amendment that would have only allowed scholarship funds to go to public schools, striking the provision allowing private schools to receive the funds.

McMahan argued his amendment would create competition among public schools. Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, pointed out adding private schools to the mix would only enhance that competition.

The Senate defeated the amendment on a voice vote.

Earlier the Senate approved an amendment by Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, that would require results of dyslexia screenings be included in students’ cumulative folders and requiring school districts to provide dyslexia services when funds are available. It also clarified current state law that allows students who can’t access needed therapy in his or her own district to attend a school in an adjacent district where the services are provided.

“If a school district had a losing football team, it’d spend as much money as it could to bring in a coach that they think could win,” Barnett said. “I think they should do the same to address all these things and to help our children.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said while he can’t speak for all school districts, athletic teams and events his school district used to pay for is now having to use private funds to continue them.

“The representation that there’s plenty of money for athletics is certainly not true where I come from,” Bryan said.

Bryan also pointed out the bill doesn’t put a time limit on the amount of time a student receiving the scholarship could stay enrolled at a private school. Tollison, however, said the average time for services to correct neurological issues association with dyslexia is three years.

Also, because the average tuition for a student to attend one of these schools is $9,000, Tollison said he doubted parents would be willing to make up the different in the scholarship amount (around $4,000) and the full amount for longer than three years.

Several senators pointed out that school districts are already required under federal law to provide a free and appropriate education to special education students, which includes dyslexic students.

Tollison said, however, he put a provision in the bill requiring school districts to use a dyslexia screener approved by the State Board of Education to make sure some students aren’t falling through the cracks.

“It’s not being done across our state,” Tollison said of proper screenings by schools.

Sen. Nickey Browning, R-Pontotoc, asked Tollison why it wouldn’t be a better idea to work on helping school districts provide the services in the public school system.

Tollison agreed, but said this is a good alternative in the meantime for students who need services immediately.

The Legislature passed the dyslexia scholarship 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. Hob Bryan, D-Amory Credit: Mississippi Today

Bryan said the bill was an attempt to introduce vouchers, or public money used at private schools.

“We need to stop using students with special needs and dyslexia as an excuse to promote another agenda,” Bryan said.

There are currently 165 students enrolled in the scholarship program.

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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.