‘Who would have thought?’: Senate leaders slip funding for private school scholarships into unrelated spending bill

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Reeves speaks at a school choice rally in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 24, 2017. Reeves said Thursday night that he believes the private school vouchers program is a good program.

Many House and Senate members were upset late Thursday to learn $2 million for a program to provide public funds to allow special needs children to attend private school was added to a bill to fund the Department of Finance and Administration.

The bill passed both chambers before many members knew about the language that increased funding for the program from $3 million to $5 million.

Attempts are expected to be made Friday to remove the language, though, it appeared late Thursday that both Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves supported leaving the funding increase in the bill.

The conference report, an agreement between House and Senate leaders, included a list of almost 70 primarily local construction projects, ranging in cost of between $10 million and $50,000. The Education Scholarship Account money was included within those projects.

Members of the leadership presenting the bill to the members late Thursday did not reveal the money for the vouchers was tucked away in the bill.

“Who would have thought money for that was in a DFA budget bill?” asked Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez. Earlier, when the education budget was presented, Johnson had asked if there was additional money for the program included in that budget bill. He was told no.

Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said while he did not tell members of the language he did provide a list of the projects in the bill. Clarke said he thought somebody would have asked about the funding.

“I think they were looking for their hometown project first before they read the entire list,” he said. He said expanding the amount spent on the program was “a priority of the lieutenant governor.”

Reeves said Thursday night he favored increasing funding “to eliminate the waiting list” for “the parents who deserve an opportunity to participate in the program. I believe it is a good program.” Members had thought they were funding the program at $3 million – the same as last year — through the Education budget bill.

On the House side, Gunn, R-Clinton, said the project was a priority of the Senate, but that he knew it was included in the bill.

But Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, one of the three House negotiators on the bill and who explained it to members before their vote, said “no” when asked if he knew about the language.

He then added that perhaps he read the language, but it did not stand out to him and he “was more concerned” about other portions of the bill.

House Education Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, told members that he was opposed the efforts of the Senate leadership to increase funding for the program. After it was learned  that the voucher language was in the bill that the members approved, Gunn called a meeting of his House Republican caucus.

After the caucus meeting, Bennett left and could not be reached by reporters.

Earlier Thursday, Bennett had told members “Putting (ESA funding) in a bill and hiding it somewhere is not the right thing to do.”

House Education Vice Chair Rob Roberson, R-Starkville, said the incident “was a first for me…I don’t know what we are going to do.”

The Legislature created the Mississippi Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program in 2015. It provides a $6,500 scholarship for students with special needs who apply to the program to use to attend private schools. Scholarship recipients can use the money to pay tuition up front and be reimbursed, or have the Mississippi Department of Education, which manages the program, pay the school directly.

Advocates, like Reeves and other Republican leadership, says the program offers parents the choice to place their child in the educational setting that is best for them. Those who oppose the program say it pulls much-needed tax dollars from the public school system.

Earlier in the session, Bennett declined to take up a bill that would have extended the life of the program, calling that “bad policy.” Unless legislators extend the program next year, it will die.

As word spread around the Capitol this week that lawmakers may try and add additional funding, Bennett told reporters he was not willing to add more money this year because “There’s problems with that program.”

A legislative report published in December highlighted the need for more oversight in the program. Since its inception, the Mississippi Department of Education has awarded 851 ESA scholarships through initial applications or lotteries. The department has allocated $9 million for the program since it was created, according to the report. 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 report.