Shealy, most local legislatures oppose voucher bill

Published 12:30 pm Sunday, February 16, 2014

A new state law that would provide vouchers for parents of special needs children to withdraw them from public schools is making its way through the Mississippi Legislature.
Senate Bill 2325, approved Thursday on a 26-23 vote, would provide a $6,000 voucher for parents who feel their children are being underserved by public schools.
The House previously passed a version of the bill 61-45. The chambers are expected to begin working on hammering out a bill that could be approved by both bodies.
Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Chad Shealy said the bill raises several concerns for him.
“A private school can’t give the attention to a special-needs child that we can,” he said. “The amount we are allocated for a special education child is much more than the Mississippi Adequate Education Program will give them. The services provided there are going to be subpar services.”
State Sen. Briggs Hopson III, R-Vicksburg, voted against the measure. Calls placed to Hopson were not returned after the vote. In the House, Rep. Oscar Denton, D-Vicksburg, opposed the House version while Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, supported it.
Over the past eight years in Mississippi, total spending per-pupil has averaged about $7,700. That number is typically much higher for special-needs children due to the inclusion of behavior specialists, speech pathologists, specialized teachers and other requirements, Shealy said.
He said the bill would likely raise more questions than it would answer.
“I’ll be interested to see how it turns out, because there’s no requirement for the receiving school to have a quality program,” Shealy said. “There’s nothing in that bill stating they have to follow to the same rules. I’m curious to see how that’s going to pan out if this becomes a reality.”
The bills would provide the funds for students who are currently enrolled in public schools or who are enrolling for the first time.
Mississippi has about 55,000 public school students in special education programs.
Shealy said the $6,000 would not cover the costs at a school that is not equipped to handle an influx of special-needs children.
“There’s no way I’d take $6,000 to take my child out of the district,” he said. “This will be reserved for parents who believe they are not receiving the services they should.”
The bill defines a participating school for the purposes of the voucher as a non-public school that has told the state that it has enrolled a special needs student that has agreed to comply with the program. It was unclear whether the law affects Vicksburg-based Jacob’s Ladder, which specializes in students with individualized education programs.
A board member at Jacob’s Ladder ­declined to comment. Tuition at Jacob’s Ladder is $4,000 per year.
Calls to the Mississippi Parent Training and Information Center were not returned.