/Senate bill beefs up oversight of special needs scholarships, would end out-of-state schools’ participation

Senate bill beefs up oversight of special needs scholarships, would end out-of-state schools’ participation

Nonprofit Mississippi News The controversial scholarship program that allows students with special needs to attend private schools could see significant changes if the bill is continued in the legislative process. Senate Bill 2594 was passed by the Senate on Friday in a voice vote. The bill would provide accountability measures for the Education Scholarship Account (ESA Program), which provides $6,765 annually to special needs students to attend public schools. The program is called “The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act”. It was created in 2015. Lt. Governor: “This legislation allows children with special needs to continue receiving critical service at schools that have a program that addresses those needs.” Delbert Hosemann stated in a statement. “It also increases accountability for taxpayer funds.” Lawmakers believe that changes are needed in light of the 2018 legislative report, which highlighted the need to have more oversight. “We decided that it would be more stringent and have more accountability,” said Sen. Dennis DeBar (R-Leakesville), chairman of the education committee. “That way, we can assess whether it is doing what we want.” ESA supporters claim that the program allows families to choose the best education for their children. Critics claim the program diverts state funding away from public schools to private schools that don’t have the right equipment to teach students with special learning needs. This would be addressed by the bill. Students who are enrolled in the program may return to their public schools at any time and the funds that remain will be returned to the home district. A private school can reimburse a public school for special education services provided by a district that provides the ESA program to students. Currently, students who have been enrolled in an Individualized Education Program for at least five years are not eligible. School districts create an IEP to help students with special needs and disabilities. The IEP must have been in place for at least three years to be eligible under this bill. Senators objected to a clause in this bill that limited the number of schools eligible for participation. Senator Kevin Blackwell (R-Southaven) said that online schools, homeschooling and other out-of-state schools will no longer be allowed to participate in the bill. He also stated that penalized counties bordering contiguous states would not be eligible. Blackwell’s district also includes DeSoto, Marshall and other counties that border Tennessee. According to the 2018 legislative report, students who participated in the program attended 96 schools that were not public in Mississippi, Tennessee and online. The list that lawmakers received on Friday indicated that at least 10 schools have participated in the program or are currently participating would be exempted from the program. However, the additional accountability measures might end up deterring even more. Blackwell suggested that the program’s name could be changed from Equal Opportunity to Select Opportunity. DeBar stated that the decision was made to ensure Mississippi taxpayer money does not go to waste. “We want to ensure that these schools are accountable for taking the money, and we want them to provide services to these kids.” Schools will also have to conduct a screening or assessment at the start and end of each school year in order to determine whether students are making progress. Senator Angela Hill (R-Picayune) proposed an amendment to remove the assessment at the beginning of the school year to decrease the number of students who have to take the test. However, it was rejected. Now, the bill is being considered by the House. The ESA program will expire this year. If lawmakers don’t act to extend or expand it during the current legislative session, it will be canceled. House Education chairman Rep. Richard Bennett (R-Long Beach), was present when the bill passed the Senate Education committee. Mississippi Today heard from him that he supported the increased accountability and said it would be well-received in the House.