Plan for voucher-like education scholarship accounts is dead

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, discusses Senate Bill No. 2001 during a special session at the Capitol in Jackson Monday, August 27, 2018.

A program that uses public school funds to send children to private schools will see no expansion or other modifications — for now.

One day before the legislative deadline to pass bills out of committee, House Education Chairman Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, declined to take up Senate Bill 2675. Originally, the bill would have expanded the program’s access to all students, but the Senate amended it to simply extend the law by four years to 2024.

When reporters asked Bennett if he might revisit the bill on Tuesday, he replied: “It’s dead.”

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

Bennett said it is “bad policy” to pass a bill that goes beyond the term of the next administration. This year Mississippi will vote on all statewide offices in November, including legislative seats.

“The next governor, the next lieutenant governor, the next Senate, the next House, you’re bypassing them completely and I don’t think that’s right,” Bennett said. “The electorate out there is going to elect new people and I don’t think you cut them out of the process.”

He also pointed to a recent legislative report that detailed problems with the existing program. The report stated the program “lacks the accountability structure needed to ensure that nonpublic schools enrolling ESA students meet statutory requirements, and that students with disabilities are receiving the services they need and progressing toward their special needs goals.”

Bennett said the Legislature needs to address those issues this year.

“I think over the summer we need to look at (the problems) and evaluate them and look at the program and then come back and see what the next administration wants to do.”

The bill will die in this year’s legislative process, but it does not end the ESA program. The original law sunsets in 2020, meaning the issue can be revisited in next year’s session.