By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Legislation providing state funds to allow students to attend private schools passed the House Education Committee Thursday via voice vote.
The bill is expected to be one of the most contentious considered during the legislative session.
Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, said the proposal “extends educational opportunity to allow those who can’t afford to move to another (better performing) district or cannot afford to attend a private school.”
When asked what the accountability measures were in the bill to ensure students were progressing educationally, Bomgar said the accountability was the parents.
“There is accountability in the bill, but the accountability that matters is the parents,” said Bomgar, who contributed to groups that helped elect legislators who favored progressing educational choice options in the state.
The bill does not require students who receive the vouchers to take the achievement tests that are required of students in the public schools. Bomgar said student testing has not been effective in improving public education.
When asked about the accountability measures, House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, the primary author of the legislation, said, “Every private school in the state is beating the crap out of the public schools.”
He later added, if the proposal does not include accountability measures now, they will be added later in the legislative process.
“You can bet there will be some accountability in it,” said Moore, adding the intent of the bill is to help students whose needs are not being met in the public schools.
“This is a travesty to public education in Mississippi,” said Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, of the voucher bill. “This is a step backward…at a time we have underfunded public education $1.7 billion, and we are $200 million short for this year.
“It defies logic to give $30 million of our public education dollars to private schools, academies and religious institutions with no accountability. I fail to see how this improves public education in Mississippi.”
The bill would be an enhancement of the legislation that passed last year to provide $6,500 per year for parents of special-needs children to pursue private education options.
The bill this year would provide $5,000 vouchers to low-income students and $4,000 vouchers per year to students earning up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level or about $85,000 annually for a family of four.
The proposal would be capped at 1 percent of the total public school enrollment or about 4,900 students and would increase an additional 1 percent each year. If 1 percent of the total public school enrollment took advantage of the bill, the cost to the state would be about $30 million for the first year, though participation in the special education voucher program last year was far short of the total slots available.
Vouchers also could be used for other purposes like hiring a tutor for homeschooling.
Section 208 of the state Constitution reads no funds shall “be appropriated toward the support of any sectarian school, or to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.”
But Bomgar said the funds would be given to the parents and not the schools.