Public School Students in Miss. Could Soon Use Vouchers for Private Schools

Credit: Paul Boger/MPB.

Credit: Paul Boger/MPB.

Parents of public school students in Mississippi could soon be able to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools. Lawmakers believe the “Equal Opportunity for All Students Act” would give many children across the state a shot at a quality education.

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House Bill 943 would extend vouchers to all public school students whose families live at or below 350% of the federal poverty level.

Under the legislation, parents would receive between $4,000 and $6,500 in taxpayer money if they pull their children out of public schools and place them in a private institution or home schooling program.

Representative John Moore of Brandon is the chair of the House education committee.

“The taxpayers are paying for every child in the state of Mississippi to receive the best education that’s available,” Moore says. “If there is an available, better education that that parents can opt to go to with the same money, somebody needs to explain to me why that child should not have the right to go to another school.’

The bill does cap the number of students allowed to participate in the program at one percent of the total number of students enrolled in Mississippi’s public school the previous year. If more students apply for the vouchers, students with disabilities would be given preferential treatment, followed by low incomes students and then those living in C,D or F districts.

The proposal is already receiving overwhelming support from Republicans, but Democrats like Representative Sonya Williams-Barnes of Gulfport are not so sure.

“We are totally opening for all children to attend schools that are not public schools,” says Barnes. “It’s going deplete funding in public education. Those districts are going to suffer.”

In addition, the bill says nothing about whether children who exit the state’s public education system but continue to use taxpayer funds will be required to take state tests to ensure student achievement. Freshman Representative Joel Bomgar, a Republican from Madison who presented the bill to the committee says parents will be the ultimate judges of student success.

“We’ve tried every other type of accountability known, literally, to humankind except accountability to parents,” Bomgar says. “In every other industry, in every other market, for every other product, for every other service, the only sort of accountability that drives behavior and makes things better is accountability to the person impacted.”

The act does not apply high-income families or those with children already attending private school. It now heads to the floor of the house for debate.

This story was originally published by Mississippi Public Broadcasting on February 19, 2016.

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