Senate Education Committee chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, reads from a copy of recommendations made to lawmakers by EdBuild, a New Jersey non-profit education consulting firm, during the firm’s presentation to legislative committees in January 2017.

Backers of a program that allows Mississippi families to use public funds to send their children with special needs to private schools hope to expand the program.

In 2015, the Legislature passed a law that created the Mississippi Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program. Students with special needs who apply to the program can receive $6,500 per year from the state to attend private schools.

Lawmakers have filed a pair of bills in the House and Senate to expand the program.

Republican leaders have praised the program since it launched, arguing that parents know what is best for their children and should be able to enroll them where they please.

I believe that we ought to expand the options for the children of this state,” Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said during a “school choice” rally at the Capitol last week.

At the same event, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said the idea is “about giving more parents more options for their kids” and that the Legislature should “find the money this year so kids can go to the best school for them.”

Families with this scholarship can pay tuition up front and be reimbursed, or have the Mississippi Department of Education, which manages the program, pay the the school directly. Those funds can be used to pay tuition, purchase textbooks and curriculum supplies and tutoring, among other similar reasons.

Today, the program is only for students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that has been active in the last five years. An IEP is created by school districts for the education of a student with special needs or disabilities. Under both bills, students could also receive a diagnosis from a doctor or clinical psychologist to gain eligibility for the ESA program.

Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian

The House bill was authored by Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, a staunch supporter of the original bill in 2015. With this bill, eligibility would be expanded to children who have been adopted or are in the foster-care system, or is the sibling of a student who currently receives an ESA scholarship. Additionally, unused funds from one year’s scholarship can roll over to the next year.

Right now ESA applications are completed and handled through paper and mail. Both the House and Senate bills would create an Office of Educational Opportunity within the department to manage the program and create an online process to submit applications. In December 2018, a state watchdog group published a detailed legislative report that stated the program needs more oversight and accountability.

Under the House bill, this office would work with an outside vendor to “develop and administer a system for parents of participating students to access ESA program payments, submit applications, renewals and denials, and find information pertaining to ESA program participation.” This system would also create a phone application or online portal for users to submit payments and applications with their phone.

The Senate version, filed by education committee chairman and Senate Pro-Tempore Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, has similar requirements on eligibility but would essentially open up the program to all students.

Students must fit one or more criteria:

  • Attended a Mississippi public school in the previous school year
  • Is eligible to attend kindergarten or first grade at a public school
  • Have been diagnosed with a special need
  • Has a parent that is a member of the Armed Forces “on active duty or was killed in the line of duty”
  • Children in foster care, are adopted or in the process of family reunification, or have siblings using an ESA scholarship are also eligible.

Not everyone agrees expanding the program is a good policy move.

We think this is a terrible idea,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of public school advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign.

“We believe that public funds should be used for the public good,” Loome said. “That means being used to fund schools that are open to all children that are accountable to the taxpayers in the way that they use those taxes specifically.”

The deadline for all bills to pass out of committee is Feb. 5.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.