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Special needs vouchers could benefit local families

A bill in the state Legislature could help provide educational alternatives for special needs children.

The House of Representatives recently passed an amended version of SB-2695, named the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, with a vote of 65-51. The bill would provide $6,500 annually to families, in the form of vouchers, to pay for tuition, textbooks and other education services for their special needs children.

Brookhaven resident Shannon Miller, who drives her son to school in Jackson every day, said that a voucher program would have helped her family. Miller’s 6-year-old son, Eli, was diagnosed with autism and ADHD at 3 and now attends kindergarten at Magnolia Speech School in Jackson. Miller said the decision to enroll Eli in a school more than 60 miles away was based on what he needs right now, and it “was a better decision for his education.”

She said Eli, who has a severe speech and language delay, needed more assistance with his learning than he could receive locally. For two years until he was able to attend kindergarten, Eli was enrolled in the all-day developmental pre-school program the Lincoln County School District offers at West Lincoln Attendance Center.

Eli is now in his first year at Magnolia Speech School but Miller said the goal is to transition him back to a school in Brookhaven as he gets older and his needs become less intensive. The Millers have another child who attends high school at Brookhaven Academy.

“Right now we’re not reimbursed for tuition or gas,” Miller said. “We have to take the responsibility financially.”

Miller said they’ve had to pay out of pocket for additional educational services when Eli was in preschool and now for his tuition at the Magnolia Speech School. She said that if her son qualified and they were to receive a voucher, the money would help greatly.

Lincoln County School District Assistant Superintendent Letha Presley said the legislation may not have that much of an effect on the Lincoln County School District. Presley said the district’s special needs program provides assistance to students with special needs from age 3 to 21.

Presley said the developmental preschool was started several years ago and was paired with the existing preschool program allowing special education students to interact with other students their age while still getting the assistance they needed.

“Because of budget restraints we had to cut the regular education preschool,” Presley said.

She said at West Lincoln, the county has a building housing two teachers with their assistants who help special education students from the preschool program as well students in other grades.

“The teachers are really good and take care for the kids,” Presley said. “They’re a positive aspect of the special education program.”

Rep. Becky Currie (R-Brookhaven) voted in favor of the amended bill, and Rep. Bobby Moak (D-Bogue Chitto) voted against the bill. Democrats largely objected to the measure. Sen. Sally Doty (R-Brookhaven) voted in favor of the original bill when it was in the Senate.

The measure now heads back to the Senate where it could be debated again or sent on to the governor for his signature.

“This will give parents real options to find the best education path for their children,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement. “I look forward to the Senate concurring and sending the bill to my desk.”