JACKSON – Legislation to expand a special needs scholarship/voucher program to all students has been filed in both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature.

The Senate version of the Education Scholarship Accounts expansion was filed by Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford.

The original intent of the legislation, passed in the 2015 session and authored by former state Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, was to provide vouchers to allow special needs children to pursue private education options.

The program was later expanded to allow special needs children already in private school to receive the state subsidies.

Now legislation introduced by Tollison and Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, would allow students who do not have a special needs designation to apply for the scholarships. Under both proposals, special needs students would still receive first priority for what would be a limited number of vouchers.

Thus far, based on information provided by the Mississippi Department of Education, which administers the program, students in the Jackson metro area have been the biggest users of the vouchers.

According to the state Department of Education, 156 of the 435 vouchers awarded for the current school year, well over one-third, came from the Metro Jackson counties of Hinds, Rankin and Madison.

In addition, another 34 of the students receiving the $6,494 in state funds to attend the private schools are from DeSoto County – a suburb of Memphis – and 228 of the participants come from only eight school districts.

The state Department of Education did not provide exact numbers of students participating in the voucher program from any district that had less than 10 participants. No Northeast Mississippi school distinct had 10 participants for the current school year.

For the 2016-17 school year when the Department of Education did provide exact numbers for all school districts, Tupelo had the most participants from Northeast Mississippi in the program with nine. In total for the 2016-17 school year, there were 22 vouchers to students from the 16 Northeast Mississippi counties.

It appears the total for Northeast Mississippi is about the same this year, though, exact numbers were not released by the Department of Education. But the districts from Northeast Mississippi having at least one student receiving the funds for the current school year are Aberdeen, Clay, Corinth, Lee, Pontotoc County, Pontotoc City, Oxford, Oktibbeha/Starkville, Monroe, Tupelo, West Point and Union County.

Tollison said in earlier interviews that he believes the program will receive more statewide use as the number of private schools across the state increases.

The bills would represent one of the state’s largest expansions of school choice. School choice proponents have been actively lobbying on behalf of the expansion and will hold a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday during school choice week.

The state’s Republican political leadership – Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn – all have backed the expansion. Gunn, though, has questioned whether a majority of the House would support the proposal.

“High quality educational opportunities should be available to all students,” Grant Callen, president of Empower Mississippi, said in a statement. “The special needs ESA passed three years ago and has provided the life-changing power of school choice to hundreds of students. The program has been wildly successful by virtually every measure, serving students at 80 different private schools. Now that the program has demonstrated success, it’s time to expand eligibility to additional students.”

But the Parents Campaign, a public education advocacy group, has voiced opposition, saying the program will take money from an already underfunded public school system.

Nancy Loome, president of the Parents Campaign, said the private schools accepting the vouchers still “pick and choose which students they want to accept and reject those they don’t want.”

Under the proposed expansion, all public school students would be eligible for the vouchers, as well as all students entering kindergarten or the first grade.

In the Senate bill, a priority would be given to families earning 250 percent or less of the federal poverty level, which would be $61,500 annually for a family of four.

For the first year, the program would be capped at .05 percent of public school enrollment or 2,500 students and grow by 1 percent each year. They would receive 95 percent of the base student cost. Special needs students would continue to receive a little less than $6,500 annually.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com Twitter: @bobbyharrison9

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