Bills to expand school choice pending as parents rally at Capitol

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Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Students, parents and advocates fill the Capitol rotunda on “school choice” day.

Students, parents and policymakers rallied at the State Capitol on Tuesday to voice their support for more programs allowing parents to use public dollars to send their children to  private schools or to purchase tutoring and other services.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves each touted the importance of school choice, saying a child’s zip code and financial status should not limit his or her educational options.

Bryant, a major backer of the state’s current programs for dyslexic students and students with special needs, likened the public school system to a modern-day Berlin Wall and also compared the fight for public-to-private education options to the fight for integration in the 1950s and 1960s.

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Gov. Phil Bryant speaks about “school choice” as Speaker Philip Gunn listens at the State Capitol.

“As I was reflecting back on that, in the 1950s African-American children were told ‘you can only go to this school’ … Then a father and mother in Little Rock, Ark., one day said, ‘We’re not going to stand for it anymore, we’re going to take our children and enroll them in a better school,’ ” Bryant told the crowd.

“Brown vs. Board (of Education) changed the laws in the land … you’re fighting today for the same belief,” he continued. “Your civil right, your civil liberty to take your child and enroll them in a school of your choice — not one that the federal or state government is telling you to put them in.”

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Leah Ferretti, with husband Blake (left) and her two sons, says the public school system failed her dyslexic son.

Leah Ferretti, the mother of two dyslexic children, shared her experience in the Cleveland public schools.

She said when her son Thomas was enrolled in public schools, the district failed to properly screen him and could not provide him with the Orton-Gillingham based therapy he was prescribed in an outside evaluation.

In the meantime, Ferretti, an educator herself, enrolled in a dyslexia therapy program so she would be able to help her son. She also applied for a scholarship from the state and was placed on the waiting list.

Because she wouldn’t be notified until July whether the family received the scholarship, she enrolled Thomas in Bayou Academy, a private school where she could provide the services to him at school.

“We couldn’t afford to lose another year,” she told lawmakers at an earlier event at the Capitol. “We had to pay out of pocket on top of the taxes we’re already paying so my child can get that customized education for him.”

As the law stands now, public school students with an individualized education plan, or a plan that lists objectives and services for students with special needs, in the past five years are eligible for education scholarship accounts. The money can be used for a variety of services — private school tuition, tutoring, the purchase of curriculum, fees for exams such as Advanced Placement or college entry exams, among others.

Grant Callen, the head of Empower Mississippi, which hosts the rally each year, supports expanding the current law and making tweaks such as holding the lottery earlier in the year so parents can plan better.

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Students from the Dynamic Dyslexia Design, or The 3-D School, in Petal at the National School Choice Rally in Jackson.

Bills filed by Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, a Republican from Oxford, and Rep. Charles Busby, a Republican from Pascagoula, would greatly expand which students are eligible to receive funds.

Tollison’s bill would expand eligibility to all students but first prioritize students with special needs and secondly prioritize students whose household incomes are less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. The recipients would be selected at random, the bill states, and those without special needs would be funded at a percentage of the base student cost instead of the full $6,500 amount.

Busby’s bill is similar.

Both bills include language that students who receive the accounts must take a “nationally norm-referenced achievement test” in English and math in the 3rd and 8th grades. They must also take a college admissions test in the 11th grade.

Should either of the bills pass, the program will be limited to .5 percent of all public school enrollment, “with new enrollment limited to an additional one percent” of public school enrollment each year after.