One bill that has already passed through the Senate Education Committee—Senate Bill 2695, authored by Republican Sen. Nancy Collin from Tupelo—creates the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs program. Similar bills have been unsuccessful in recent years. Democrat Rep. David Baria from Bay St. Louis introduced House Bill 649, which steers clear of giving additional funding to one group of students.
Photo by Trip Burns.
Two bills aimed at improving the educational experience for students with special needs—from opposite ends of the political spectrum—are making the rounds this Legislative session.
Both have the goal of increasing the graduation rate of special-needs students in the state, which currently sits at 23 percent.
One bill that has already passed through the Senate Education Committee—Senate Bill 2695, authored by Republican Sen. Nancy Collin from Tupelo—creates the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs program. Similar bills have been unsuccessful in recent years.
Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, filed essentially the same bill, House Bill 394, in the House this session.
The "Equal Opportunity" measures would give educational scholarship accounts to parents of students who qualify as special needs, which they could use on a number of educational programs and tools, including tuition to private school.
"I just don't think (special-needs students) need to sit and wait until (public schools) can get their act together in some of these schools that are not doing well," Crawford said. "I don't want them to have to sit around and wait for (public schools) to improve. Let's give these children what they need now."
Democrat Rep. David Baria from Bay St. Louis introduced House Bill 649, which steers clear of giving additional funding to one group of students.
Instead, his bill addresses the educational status of special-needs students by creating the Mississippi Office of Educational Special Needs Counsel. The counsel would provide guidance and advocacy to parents of children with disabilities to help them obtain special-education services.
"Parents told us that they need legal advice to get the proper evaluations, services and resources that are already available for their children," Baria said in a press release. "Rep. (Cecil) Brown and I heard these parents and drafted legislation to address the problem."
Beverly Brahan, Mississippi Association of Educators associate executive director, said Tuesday that adequate programs and services for special-needs students already exist within the state's public-education system. Public schools simply need the funding necessary to implement them.
Because the scholarships laid out in the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs measure resemble vouchers, which takes money out of the public-school system, the bill has received flak from most public-school advocates.
The program would create a place in the general budget for these scholarships and not take money out of what is already spent on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. But public school advocates worry that the state wants to spend money on the small percentage of students who are special needs when it could give that money to MAEP to fund and improve the entire public school system.
While Baria did not introduce his bill in opposition to the special-needs educational scholarship bill, he and Rep. Brown do believe creating a counsel is a better approach to solving problems with special education in the state.
"The Office of Special Needs Counsel that we propose would run about $1.5 annually and be available to all parents of children with special needs. By way of contrast, the Republican voucher proposal would cost taxpayers more than double—$3.5 million and cover only 500 children out of the approximate 60,000 that Mississippi has," Brown stated in a press release.
Brahan said HB 649 is a more "comprehensive, balanced approach" that works to reach all special-needs students in the state, not just the ones who want to leave public school. Once parents understand the law regarding special needs education, Brahan said, they can better advocate for their children.