Students, parents celebrate ‘a variety of choices’ in education on the Capitol steps

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A crowd attends a rally celebrating “School Choice” week at the Mississippi State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2018.

Parents, children and policy makers gathered once more in Jackson Tuesday morning to advocate for programs parents use to send their children to private or charter schools using public funds.

This year’s event took place on the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol as part of a celebration for “National School Choice Week.”

After the 2018 rally, House and Senate leaders acknowledged there was uneven enforcement of a state policy surrounding rallies in the building. Instead of gathering around the Capitol rotunda, on Tuesday crowds of students and adults donned the trademark yellow scarves and fanned out across the Capitol lawn while Jackson State University’s Prancing J-Settes danced to music a DJ played nearby.

Speakers focused on familiar themes, arguing “school choice” gives parents an equal opportunity to enroll their children in educational settings that are best for their kids.

“The government doesn’t know what’s best for each child,” said Speaker Philip Gunn. “We think parents ought to have a variety of choices to do what’s best for their child.”

In recent years, the state Legislature has passed several laws that expand “school choice” access in Mississippi. The state’s first charter school opened in 2015, and today five schools operate in Jackson and Clarksdale, collectively. Last fall, three more were approved to open in the future.

Mississippi charter schools are operated by nonprofit organizations that appoint a board for the school. The schools are approved and overseen by the Charter School Authorizer Board.

Charter schools receive funding from the state on a per-pupil basis, and the school district the charter operates in is required to send those funds to the schools. Since the first charter school opened in Jackson, the Jackson Public School District has paid more than $8.7 million to charter schools, a district spokesperson told Mississippi Today.

Parent and gifted education teacher Tarsha Manning said she brought her son Chance, 11, to the event because she supports “school choice” efforts. Her son attends Midtown Public Charter School in Jackson, where she feels he’s connecting better socially and receiving more small group instruction. When asked if she agreed with the sentiment that parents know what’s best for their children when it comes to education, Manning disagreed.

“As a teacher I don’t always agree with that because there are some schools who are thriving and meeting the kids’ needs, but there are some that don’t always and a lot of parents really don’t know,” Manning said. “I think there just needs to be more education, more avenues to provide an outlook on what exactly is school choice.”

In 2015, lawmakers passed the “Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act,” which established a program for students with special needs to receive $6,500 per year from the state to attend nonpublic schools.

“School choice is too often reserved for simply those who can afford it, and that is not acceptable,” said Grant Callen, president of Empower Mississippi, the advocacy organization which played a large role in getting the program created. “All children deserve a great education, not just those born into the right zip codes.”

A recently released legislative report shows parents who were surveyed say they are satisfied with the program, but many private schools do not have the staff on hand to serve students with special needs and more oversight is necessary for the program to function better.

The Mississippi Department of Education has allocated $9 million to the Education Scholarship Account (ESA) since the program first launched. Of that, $4.8 million was disbursed to parents and service providers, and about $310,000 was used to pay for administration of the program. The leftover funds were returned to the state treasury, according to the legislative report.

Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, was a staunch proponent of the program before it was passed into law, and said she hopes the Legislature takes note of families’ interest.

“This program has been here three years now and it’s been successful,” Crawford said. “We’ve got some tweaking we need to do, but with any new program you’ve got to make some changes as you see what’s working and what’s not working.”