Mississippi Senators voted 30-18 to pass Senate Bill 2695, which allows $6,500 per year in education vouchers for up to 500 students for the first year in place. Each year thereafter, 500 additional students could receive a voucher until the program reaches 2,500 students. Emily Wagster Pettus of the Associated Press says the money could be used for tutoring, therapy, or private school tuition.
Some Mississippi legislators are against using tax dollars to pay for private education. Supporters believe that the vouchers/scholarships would give hope to students whose needs are not being met by the public schools they attend. Those against the bill say the number of children who will be helped by the vouchers is just a few of the 66,500 special needs children who attend Mississippi's public schools.
Even Bryant said that lawmakers should try to improve services for all special-needs students, not just for the small number who will receive vouchers. The bill has been held for a another possible round of debate, according to Sen. John Hohm (D-Jackson), but opponents will likely allow the bill to go to Governor Phil Bryant, who plans to approve it.
"Special needs students deserve the opportunity to succeed, and this bill gives parents the power to provide additional resources to help their children obtain the education and support they need," Bryant said in a news release.
The biggest piece of an overall spending plan for Mississippi was put into place last week by Bryant when he signed a $2.5 billion budget for elementary and secondary schools. This occurred, according to the Associated Press, on the same day that the Joint Legislative Budget Committee met and increased the estimates of spending for programs like prisons, universities, and Medicaid. The state economist, the director of the state Department of Revenue and the state fiscal officer evaluated employment rates and collections of sales taxes and individual and corporate income taxes and found that the state's economy is improving and tax collections are increasing. The state-funded portion of the budget will be $6 billion for this year and next.
Bill 2695 is known as the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act. Jon Rushing of WLOX-TV writes that graduation rates for Mississippi's students with special needs is 22.5%. Those without special needs graduate at a 74.5% rate.
In order to qualify for this program, students must have an active Individualized Education Program within the last 18 months from the date of enrollment to the program. The students who come to register first will fill the first 250 openings. The 250 slots left will be filled by means of a lottery.
Critics of the bill believe it is unconstitutional because of the conflict with separation of church and state, reports Kyle Rothenberg of FoxNews. They say that taking children out of public schools and placing them into a religious academic institution using government dollars goes against what the founding fathers were trying to establish.
"I personally don't think it's constitutional," said Mississippi state Rep. Jeramey Anderson (D-Moss Point). "You're taking public money and putting it into the hands of citizens. You're really allowing private schools to dip into a public fund."
Dick Komer, senior attorney for Institute for Justice, disagrees, because "these types of programs are intended to benefit the families and are not intended to benefit the schools." The Institute for Justice is a legal group that was involved with writing Senate Bill 2695.