Miss. parents object to proposed bill that could kick special needs children out of scholarship accounts

Miss. parents object to proposed bill that could kick special needs children out of scholarship program

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Advocates were at the State Capitol Wednesday reminding lawmakers not to forget public schools this session, after many candidates made it a campaign focus last year.

“It’s just a time to put the money where your conversation has been,” explained Geraldine Bender of the American Federation of Teachers – Mississippi.

They’re praising the work being done to provide for teacher pay raises and looking at other ways to combat the teacher shortage.

“We’re looking to change the criteria, the qualifications to become a teacher and I think once we get that in place I think that it will really... we’re talking about 4-500 teachers will become eligible immediately according to some of the persons in the profession,” said Senator Sollie Norwood-D.

Meanwhile, other public education advocates are watching legislation that could change the number of students receiving education scholarship accounts. Those dollars are directed to private schools where the parents believe their students’ special needs are better met.

The program is set to expire this year.

The current proposal changes the definition of “eligible school” and cuts the current options by half. That could kick hundreds of those special needs children out of the program.

Allison Talley’s daughter has Down syndrome and she’s fighting to keep the program intact.

She notes that the ESA in no way covers all of their expenses and it is less than the cost per student in a public school.

She also makes note that families receiving the scholarships are still paying local taxes to their school district while electing to pay out-of-pocket expenses to the school that best fits their child’s needs.

“If we were to lose that, we would be starting all over and every other family would be too," said Talley. "And my fear is that families would give up and that’s a tragedy for families that need a lot of help with their special needs children.”

Groups like The Parents’ Campaign say the program needs to be tightened to provide more accountability, but Talley worries that it will be tightened to the point that families would effectively be cut out of the program.

“We can’t let the children who need the services now suffer any longer than they already have,” added Talley.

Sen. Sollie Norwood would rather see all of that money directed into public schools.

“Back up and look at this and invest the money with the public schools and hold the public schools accountable,” said Norwood.

The Senate Education Committee Thursday morning and some of these issues, including the education scholarship accounts, are expected to be brought up for discussion.

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