The Mississippi State Capitol was awash with bright yellow scarves Tuesday as hundreds of students, parents and educators traveled here to celebrate “school choice,” the notion that parents should be able to choose where their children receive their education.
The event was part of an annual celebration of “National School Choice Day,” which takes place in states across the country. In recent years, the Mississippi Legislature has passed several laws that expand “school choice” access in the state.
Charter schools are free public schools with more flexibility in student instruction, and unlike traditional public schools, do not have local school boards or operate under a school district. The first charter school opened in 2015, and today six schools operate in Jackson and Clarksdale. Another is scheduled to open this summer in Greenwood.
Mississippi also has an Education Scholarship Account program which came about in 2015 when the Legislature passed the law to establish a program for students with special needs to receive $6,500 per year from the state to attend nonpublic schools. 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. A similar program exists for students who have been diagnosed with dyslexia.
In 2018, a legislative report outlined the program’s needs for increased accountability. The ESA program sunsets this year, which means if lawmakers do not take action to extend or expand the program during the current legislative session it will die.
John Wells is a D’Iberville parent whose daughter participates in the ESA program. He encouraged the rally’s attendees to speak to their lawmakers about the program.
“It is coming up for a vote this next session and we really want to encourage you to speak to your leaders to continue this program, to even expand it, because there is so much that we can do with it,” Wells said. “You know, it is an amazing thing to be able to choose where you want your kids to go to school, to be able to choose how you live your life with your children.”
This year marks the fifth for the “school choice” event, which usually features public officials. Former Gov. Phil Bryant, House Speaker Philip Gunn and now Gov. Tate Reeves have each taken to the podium in years past to voice their support for the program and similar efforts, but no public officials spoke on Tuesday.
As lieutenant governor Reeves was a major backer of “school choice “efforts and attended the rally in years past, but was not present Tuesday. He did offer support during his State of the State address on Monday evening, telling the crowd that the results of “school choice” reforms “…speak for themselves. We must hold the line against those who would undo the very reforms that are lifting children up.”
What happens to the law remains to be seen, as neither chamber has taken up the issue yet. In the House, Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach declined to take up a bill last year that would have extended the law into 2024, telling reporters it was “bad policy” to pass legislation that goes beyond the term of the next administration. Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville, is the new Education Committee chairman in the Senate. Like Bennett, he voted for the 2016 bill that updated the ESA program’s eligibility requirements, but he ultimately voted against a separate 2016 bill that expanded the state’s charter school law.
Supporters of the “school choice” movement are often criticized as anti-public school. In 2018, legislative leaders received flack for their uneven enforcement of a Capitol policy where public school advocates were denied the opportunity to hold a rally inside the Capitol similar to the “school choice” event. On Tuesday, attendees repeatedly said there was no animosity towards public school supporters.
“We are not anti-public school people, but we are pro-choice for these children getting what they need in the environment that is best suited for them,” said Cena Holifield, executive director of the 3-D School in Petal and Ocean Springs. “That is what school choice is, it’s choice that brings about freedom. But it also brings about using your tax dollars more efficiently.”
Grant Callen is president of Empower Mississippi, a “school choice” advocacy organization that has been heavily involved in reform efforts over the years. On Tuesday he pushed back at the notion that the rally’s signature yellow scarves are “divisive” or signify a disdain for traditional public schools.
“This is not about one type of education over another, it’s about making sure that every child has access to a great education,” Callen said.