Gov. Phil Bryant welcomes students to the signing of the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, Thursday, April 16, 2015 at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. The act created vouchers for some special education students. A 2018 legislative report  highlighted the need for more oversight of the program.

A controversial program that provides scholarships for special needs students to attend private school may see substantial changes if a bill continues in the legislative process.

Senate Bill 2594 passed out of the Senate Friday on a voice vote. The bill would add accountability measures to the Education Scholarship Account (ESA) Program, which provides special needs students $6,765 per year from the state to attend nonpublic schools. Dubbed “The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act,”  the program was established in 2015.

“This legislation allows children who have special needs to continue receiving critical services at a school which has a program addressing those needs,” Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said in a statement. “It also adds accountability for taxpayer dollars.”

Lawmakers say changes are necessary in the wake of a 2018 legislative report which highlighted the need for more oversight.

Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville

“We decided to tighten it up a little bit and provide some more accountability,” said education committee chairman Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville. “That way we can assess whether the program is doing the things that we want it to do.”

ESA supporters say the program gives families a choice in the type of education that’s best for their children. Critics argue the program siphons state funding from the public schools into private schools that are not equipped to teach students with special needs.

The bill would address this — students participating in the program can return to public school at any time, and the unused funds will be returned to their home school district. Additionally, if a public school district ends up providing special education services to a student enrolled in the ESA program, the private school must reimburse the public school.

As it stands currently, only students with an Individualized Education Program that has been active in the last five years are eligible to participate. An IEP is created by school districts for the education of a student with special needs or disabilities. With this bill, the IEP would need to have been active in the last three years.

Some senators protested a clause in the bill that would limit which schools can participate. Homeschooling, online schools and out-of-state schools would no longer be eligible, something Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, said penalized counties that border contiguous states. Blackwell’s district includes DeSoto and Marshall counties, which border Tennessee. The 2018 legislative report noted that students in the program attended 96 nonpublic schools in Mississippi, Tennessee, and online.

A list provided to lawmakers on Friday suggests that at least 10 schools that have participated or currently participate would be excluded from the program, although the added accountability measures may end up deterring more.

“Maybe we need to change the name from equal opportunity to select opportunity,” Blackwell said.

DeBar said the decision was made because “Mississippi taxpayer money needs to stay in Mississippi.”

“We’re not shutting down schools and we’re not kicking kids out the program,” DeBar said. “We’re making sure that there is accountability on behalf of these schools taking the money and we want to make sure they’re providing services to these children.”

Participating schools will also be required to administer a screener or assessment at the beginning and end of the school year to measure whether students make progress. Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, offered an amendment to drop the beginning of year assessment to reduce the amount of testing students go through, but it failed.

The bill now travels to the House for consideration. 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. When the bill passed out of the Senate Education committee in February, House education chairman Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, was present. He told Mississippi Today he approved of the heightened accountability in the bill and indicated it would be well received in the House.

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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.