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Special education voucher bill advances in state Senate

JACKSON Education apple— Lawmakers are pursuing multiple options to help special education students, as a reprise of last year’s fight over vouchers for special education students looms.

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 2695, which gives $7,000 in state money to the parent of any Mississippi special education student who wanted to withdraw their child from their local public school district.

That measure moves to the full Senate, while a similar bill awaits committee action in the House.

Both Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant are supporting the voucher bill this year, but some House Democrats are offering other options.

Opponents of vouchers back House Bill 814, which would offer money for extra services to special education students in public schools. House Bill 649 would hire lawyers who would offer advice to parents and help them in disputes with school districts over special education services.

Under Senate Bill 2695, parents could spend money on an eligible school, hire a tutor or therapist, or buy books or computers. Home-schooling would be banned, but the Senate bill would allow a student to take online courses.

Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, said the bill is needed to allow options for some students who aren’t getting what they need from their public school district.

“It’s clear there are some schools that are not meeting their needs,” Collins said.

The bill would allow 500 students a year to enroll, building to 2,500 at the end of a five-year pilot period. The money — starting at $3.5 million the first year and building to $17.5 million by the last year — would not come out of the state’s educational funding formula.

The proposal says parents must provide an educational program “with measurable annual goals.” It also says that students must have been enrolled in public schools within the last 18 months.

Opponents don’t like the bill, saying they feel it would bleed resources from public schools and set a precedent for vouchers for all students.

Wendy Rogers, head of the statewide association of special education directors, touted House Bill 814 as a better option. It would unbundle special education money from the state’s overall funding formula and create a separate budget line, in an effort to focus attention on what advocates say is underfunding.

“We need the human resources to do the job,” Rogers said. “We need the teachers, the assistants and the therapists.”

It would also create a state autism coordinator and would give financial aid of $1,000 to $4,000 for additional services above and beyond what students get in school. Rogers said she didn’t know how much the bill might cost.

Finally, Democratic Reps. David Baria of Bay St. Louis and Cecil Brown of Jackson are advocating House Bill 649, which hire attorneys in the northern, central and southern parts of the state at a cost of $1.5 million. Their approach is to help parents get the services federal law requires.

“The solution is for the school to do the job under the law that they have,” Brown said. “It’s already their job under the law to provide services.”

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