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Change in private school money awards to clear waiting list

Mississippi education officials are changing how they give out money for students with disabilities to attend private schools, awarding money on a first-come, first-served basis instead of holding a lottery for some applicants.

The Mississippi Department of Education said Tuesday that it has enough money to award grants of up to $6,765 to 695 applicants. The value of the award rose from $6,594 this year.

Getting top priority will be 415 students continuing in the program. Next up, according to Department Chief Academic Officer Nathan Oakley, will be 184 applicants who applied before but were denied for lack of funds. Fewer than 100 slots will remain for new applicants.

The first deadline to apply for the program , called an Educational Savings Account, is July 20. Parents will be notified of awards upon approval, and no later than July 1. After that, if any money is left, the department will make awards on a rolling basis.

Eligible are Mississippi students who have had a special education plan prepared by a public school within five years of applying. Money can be spent on any private or virtual school, but can’t be used for homeschooling.

There’s more money this year because lawmakers, at the insistence of Lt. Gov Tate Reeves, added $2 million to funding. The money appeared in a list that was mostly construction projects funded with surplus money from a previous year’s budget surplus. Many Democrats and some Republicans opposed the increase, citing a report that raised questions about the program’s effectiveness and a renewal deadline next year. The outrage was hottest in the House , where members had been publicly assured on earlier bills that there would be no increase over $3 million. Public school teacher groups took the move as a special insult, after they complained that a $1,500 teacher pay raise was too paltry.

Empower Mississippi, a group that promotes school choice and invested substantially in state elections in 2015, had lobbied heavily for the increased funding, calling on lawmakers to clear the waiting list. President Grant Callen said many families can benefit from some other school besides the public school to which their children are assigned.

“We are thrilled that many more families will finally be able to gain access to ESAs,” Callen said in a statement. “This would not have been possible without the commitment of the Lieutenant Governor and other legislative advocates this year to addressing the wait list.”

Oakley said the department changed its method of award after consulting with lawmakers and reinterpreting the state law that governs the program. The law authorized 2,500 slots next year, many more than are funded, and Oakley said the department now believes no lottery is necessary until the department has made awards for half the authorized slots. Previously, the department held a lottery after awarding half the funded slots.

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