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Voucher bill fails in House, but district transfers live

JACKSON — A plan to use state money to pay for private school tuition or for home schooling is off the table, but Mississippi House members kept alive a measure Tuesday that could allow students to transfer from poor-performing public school districts to higher rated ones.

The House Appropriations Committee failed to consider House Bill 943, which would have allowed the state to pay for nearly 5,000 new students a year. Because Tuesday was the deadline for committees to act, the voucher bill died.

The House Education Committee did approve House Bill 91, which would allow students in districts with D and F academic ratings to transfer to any other district. The receiving district would be required to take the student as long as the district had capacity to take him or her.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said there weren’t enough votes in either his committee or among House Republicans in general for House Bill 943.

“It was my decision,” Frierson wrote to The Associated Press in a text.

The plan expanded an existing voucher program focused on special education students. It would have allowed $6,500 for special education students, $5,000 for students whose families make less than twice the federal poverty level, and $4,000 for students whose families make from 200 percent to 350 percent of the federal poverty level.

House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said he was disappointed and said legislation sometimes needs more than one session to pass.

Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, said he’d look for other ways to help children in struggling school districts.

“There’s 117,000 children who wake up every day in failing school districts,” Bomgar said. “It’s our job in the Legislature to throw them a lifeline.”

Focus now could turn to the transfer bill, sponsored by Moore. The measure was amended Tuesday in the House Education Committee to require districts to declare in advance how much spare room they have for new students in an effort to prevent districts from cherry-picking athletes and other students with special skills. Under the amendment, districts would have to create an unspecified “system” to choose students.

“My fear is that we don’t have capacity for this fellow, but we have capacity for this quarterback,” said Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula.

At least one Democrat, Rep. Gregory Holloway of Hazlehurst, expressed support for the bill, saying it would help students who “have nowhere to go.”

A similar bill had been considered in the Senate Education Committee but was set aside and never brought back up, amid concerns about whether transferring local property tax money from one district to another is legal.

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