The Hunt for Vouchers in Mississippi, After All These Years | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Hunt for Vouchers in Mississippi, After All These Years

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and others in Republican state leadership secretly slipped $2 million to expand a private-school voucher program into an unrelated funding bill on March 28, even though lawmakers had made it clear they would not support expanding the program.

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and others in Republican state leadership secretly slipped $2 million to expand a private-school voucher program into an unrelated funding bill on March 28, even though lawmakers had made it clear they would not support expanding the program. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

— After Magnolia Speech School for the Deaf converted from a private school to a racially integrated public school in 1972, Bobby Hamblin moved his two deaf daughters to Calhoun Academy, an all-white private school.

But in Fall 1973, the Calhoun County School Board warned Hamblin, who was white, that they would fire him unless he placed his children back in a county public school. He declined, arguing that his children would receive better education in the small private school rather than in the public school that specialized in their disability, and the school board fired 
him the next year.

After his firing in 1974, Hamblin told The Citizen, which was the publication of the segregationist Citizens Council, that he wanted his children in a "normal school situation."

"If I had moved my children to the public school just to keep the job there, I would have been selling them for 30 pieces of silver," he said.

Less than a year earlier, three other white teachers who had been fired for sending their children to Calhoun Academy lost in a federal lawsuit against the county school board and superintendent. They claimed the firings violated their constitutional rights, but a federal judge found that they did not because their motive for moving their children was to keep their kids from having to go to school with black children.

An Act of 'Corruption'?

In the years before and after the U.S. Supreme Court finally forced southern public schools to desegregate in early 1970, segregationists began advocating for school vouchers, using taxpayer funds to pay for private-school tuition. As the threat of forced public-school integration loomed in early 1964, the Mississippi Legislature approved a $185 voucher (equivalent $1,489.68 today) per child who enrolled at a "nonsectarian" private school and included a provision to allow local governments to sweeten the deal even more, as a Citizens Council recruitment manual explained then to white parents.

Members of the Citizens Council then dominated the Legislature, and the move coincided with the racist group forming the Council School Foundation, which would open multiple whites-only private schools around Jackson, including Council McCluer, which current Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant attended as a teenager. The voucher money helped those racist schools grow until 
a federal court struck down the 
program in 1969.

Over time, the Council schools and segregation academies that cropped up in the 1960s and 1970s remained overwhelmingly white—the Council-run schools eventually closed or merged with other private academies—and voucher advocates stopped making overtly racist appeals. The push for vouchers over time morphed into an argument for "school choice," and they began pointing to the poor performance of underfunded public schools to justify it.

In fact, the phrase "school choice" was used in the 1960s to cynically describe a "freedom of school choice" program designed to avoid integration by, supposedly, allowing black families to choose to send their kids to white public schools. The result was a handful of black students attending those schools, where they were viciously harassed by white teachers and students alike. Meantime, the State did not provide equitable funds to improve the public schools that many African American students still attended. It was an ineffective tokenism, leaving the schools separate-but-unequal.

In this year's legislative session, Republican leaders secretly slipped $2 million for a private-school voucher program into an unrelated funding bill—despite the fact that most Democrats and many Republicans opposed expanding the program.

The funds will go to the Education Scholarship Accounts, or ESA, program, which the Legislature first approved in 2015. ESAs are essentially private-school vouchers by another name that allow parents of special-needs children to use appropriated funds to pay for private tuition and education-related services.

But a state PEER investigation last year found that the program had significant transparency issues and that parents often used the funds to send children to schools that do not even provide special-education services. In those cases, federal law requires public schools to step in and provide services to private schools' special-needs children.

Just as Hamblin argued that his daughters would be better off in a private school instead of a public one that addressed their specific needs, supporters of the ESA program argue that private schools can still be better for special-needs children today—even though those schools often do not address 
their particular special needs.

Critics say the special-needs vouchers are a gateway into again offering vouchers to families who choose private schools, even as conservative legislators intentionally leave public schools under-funded, especially those in poorer communities.

"We've known all along that this law was not really written for children," The Parents' Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome told the Jackson Free Press in February. "This law was written to get public funds into 
private schools."

Citing last year's report, lawmakers from both parties rejected a bill to extend the program past its 2020 expiration date earlier this month, essentially slating it for death next year.

House members had already passed the appropriations bill almost unanimously on March 28 when they learned of the $2-million last-minute trickery that evening, leaving Democrats and some Republicans outraged. On Twitter, Democratic House Minority Leader David Baria described the move as an 
act of "corruption."

Republican leaders suggested House members should have read the bill, but the changes occurred, with no notice, just minutes before leadership held the vote. Loome told the Jackson Free Press on March 29 that leadership "intentionally hid" the changes.

"There is an understood obligation among legislators that the person presenting a piece of legislation will tell the membership anything of significance that is in that bill," she said. "How could they possibly have read that bill?"

A bill to fund the voucher program had died earlier in March, and Republicans had considered putting those funds into a teacher-pay-raise bill. House Democrats and some Republicans, like Republican House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, though, made it clear they would not vote for the pay raise if it included vouchers.

When the Senate voted on the funding bill including the voucher money Friday morning, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves did not allow a roll-call vote, shielding senators from having their votes publicly recorded. Reeves told Sen. Derrick Simmons to sit back down when the Greenville Democrat, who is black, objected to the move.

"Reeves refused to even have a recorded vote, and I think it's because he knew he was going to lose," Loome said March 30. "And so that is a corrupt process, when you have a couple of people who are in leadership positions who are violating the process and ignoring the will of the majority in both chambers to give our tax dollars to private schools. That is reprehensible."

Vouchers Over Pay Raise

Earlier in March, Loome and other public-education advocates pushed for the state Senate to support a $4,000 teacher-pay-raise bill after the House passed it. Republican leaders in the Senate insisted the state would not have enough funds to cover it, though, estimating it could cost as much as $200 million, and convinced House members to support a more meager $1,500-per-teacher increase. The smaller increase will cost about $58 million, Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, estimated.

Mississippi teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the nation, would have needed a pay raise of about $3,000 to keep up with inflation since the last pay raise in 2014. That raise also came ahead of an election year.

On the House floor on March 29, lawmakers in both parties changed their votes and tried unsuccessfully to stop the bill from going forward. Rep. Robert L. Johnson III, a Natchez Democrat, suggested Republicans were doing a sleight-of-hand with voucher funds to benefit Reeves, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor this year.

"If you want to go back home and hang it around your neck that you took $2 million from first-responders and gave it to private schools, you do that," Johnson said.

He was referring to the Mississippi Health and Safety for First Responders Act, a bill to support first responders suffering from occupational cancers. That bill almost died in the House and again in the Senate due to disagreements over funding, but the Senate passed it and sent it to the governor's desk 
on March 28.

In a tweet, Gov. Bryant, a Republican whose parents might have received a state voucher to send him to a Citizens Council school, celebrated after the bill squeaked its way out of the Legislature and headed to his desk.

"Thank you for the courageous leadership in the Senate and the House for funding special-needs scholarships," Bryant tweeted. "The children of this state who need this help will always be grateful. It's sad they had to fight the education establishment and the so-called 'Parents' Campaign' to get this help."

Claiming 'Racial Integrity'

Council schools, including Bryant's in south Jackson, openly taught that black people were innately inferior and that "racial integrity" was possible only through segregation and avoiding miscegenation, the "interbreeding" of people of different races.

Even today, students receiving ESA funds to go to private schools are disproportionately white, the December 2018 PEER study found. Today, Hillcrest Christian Academy, formerly known as McCluer High School, receives ESA funds. Its student body is more than 90-percent white.

In Marion County, Columbia Academy now receives ESA funds despite explicitly stating it does not have amenities for special-needs students; it was an early segregation academy. Its high school opened in January 1970—just weeks after the 1969 court order. As a pro-segregation group called Citizens for Local Control of Education pushed for a boycott of public schools, Marion County School District Superintendent B.F. Duncan sought to quell the furor.

"There are those of both races who do not like what has been forced upon us," he told The Hattiesburg American 
at the time.

Last year, the Jackson Free Press broke the story that Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith graduated from Lawrence County Academy, a segregation academy that opened in 1970. The report published photos from the school's 1975 yearbook that showed Hyde-Smith, then a sophomore cheerleader, posing with her cheer squad alongside a mascot dressed as a colonel and holding a Confederate flag.

"Lawrence County Academy started because people didn't want their kids going to school with minorities," Lawrence County NAACP President Wesley Bridges, who also serves on the local public school board, told the Jackson Free Press last November. 
"That's been evident."

She later sent her own daughter to a traditional segregation academy.

Hyde-Smith's school, like Columbia Academy and others, cropped up almost immediately after the 1969 Alexander v. Holmes ruling forced Mississippi and other states to finally desegregate.

In a speech shortly after that ruling, Gov. John Bell Williams called it "the most disastrous (situation) to face Mississippi since the Civil War," and he pledged to find ways to further assist white private schools. He later told a reporter that he feared to send his own children to public schools, because, he falsely asserted, black children are violent and they "all carry 
switchblades, you know."

"It's a characteristic of the race," 
he said.

That year, the Legislature passed three bills to provide tax breaks to parents of children in private schools, but lawmakers could not agree on a compromise. Instead, they settled for simply cutting $12 million from the public-school budget—justifying it on the grounds that 29,000 students had left public schools since the late 1969 ruling.

Donna Ladd contributed to this report. Ashton Pittman is the state reporter for the Jackson Free Press. Follow him on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email tips to [email protected].

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