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Special needs education vouchers could live on, with limits

Mississippi’s state Senate is proposing a significant overhaul of the program that provides state money for special education students to attend private schools. Now it’s the House’s turn to consider its future.

Parents whose children have special education needs can apply for education scholarship accounts that provide $6,500. The program was created in 2015 by Republicans who argued that students with specialized learning needs should be able to seek alternatives to public schools. It will expire after this school year unless lawmakers agree to extend it.

Public education advocates never liked the plan, arguing that many of the schools taking the money had less special education expertise than public schools and that students were giving up important legal protections when they left for private schools. The accounts have always been seen by opponents as a first step toward private school vouchers for all Mississippi students. That subject is especially fraught in the Magnolia State given that the state once subsidized private school attendance for whites fleeing integration.

But a confluence of factors combined beginning in 2019 to sharpen scrutiny. First, a critical report  by a legislative watchdog committee raised questions about the program, indicating that many of the schools that students attend had no special education capabilities. The report also raised the possibility that some students might still be getting special education services from public schools. Under federal law, public school districts are required to provide special education services to local private school students.

After a failed effort to get the program extended in 2019, then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves stuffed an extra $2 million into its funding, prompting howls of disgust from opponents.

Finally, the indictments of Nancy and Zach New for embezzling federal welfare money isn’t helping the optics, because some of the students attend the New Summit schools that Nancy New founded. There’s been no allegation the education money was misused.

Reeves has moved on to the governor’s office, and those who control the legislative process now are generally less favorable to the plan. Senators earlier this month approved Senate Bill 2954. It would extend the program for four years, but would make it much more restrictive. Participating schools would have to certify to the Mississippi Department of Education that they provide services addressing a student’s particular needs, and would require public schools be reimbursed for any special education services they provide.

Supporters of the current plan say that many schools that get money now, especially in rural areas, could be ineligible. People who would like to use the money have already had problems finding schools outside urban areas. Almost half the students in the program have typically come from five urban districts — Rankin County, Madison County, DeSoto County, Jackson and Hinds County.

The proposal would also require the schools test students at the beginning and end of each school year, and for an outside group to assess the students’ progress. The schools could use their own tests, a national standardized test, or one approved by the state. This could for the first time shed some light on students’ academic performance.

The new plan would also bar money being used for online-only schools and schools outside the state. DeSoto County lawmakers don’t like the inability for students to take the money to schools in nearby Memphis, Tennessee.

The more restrictive version won wide Senate support, including three Democratic supporters in the 40-9 margin. Now the bill awaits action in the House. Richard Bennett, a Long Beach Republican and the Education Committee chairman there, has been a clear skeptic in the past. But with some public education advocates mollified by the Senate measure, a modified program may live on.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press since 2011. Follow him at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy.