JACKSON On Valentine's Day, a voucher program that subsidizes private schools for special- needs children got the gift of four more years from the Mississippi Senate—even though many private schools in the state do not offer services for those students.
Now, public-education advocates are urging lawmakers to reject Senate Bill 2675 in the House of Representatives, where the bill is sitting in the Education Committee. It would extend the education scholarship accounts, or ESA, program beyond its 2020 expiration date to 2024.
"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 on Wednesday. "This law was written to get public funds into private schools."
In Mississippi, 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.
One part of the law, though, makes it clear that it is not really aimed at helping special-needs kids, Loome said.
"The law says that, in order to be eligible to receive the voucher, the parent must forfeit the child’s right to special education services," she said. "Which is absurd on its face."
Part of the problem with the program, said Loome, is that private schools are not required to meet any standards in order to be eligible for the program. They do not even have to admit special-needs students or provide special-needs services to ESA recepients who attend their schools.
Originally, the 2019 extension bill, which Oxford Republican Sen. Gray Tollison authored, would have expanded the program to far more students, and well beyond the $3 million in funding it currently receives. The Senate, though, scaled it back to a simple extension of the current program.
Before the Senate passed the bill, Guntown Republican Sen. Chad McMahan successfully added an amendment requiring any remaining ESA money to follow a child receiving the funds who transfers back to a public school.
In January, McMahan told the Associated Press that he would not support expanding vouchers, but could support allowing students to freely transfer across district lines among public schools. "I'm not going to support a flight of public dollars to private schools," he said at the time.
McMahan did say he would support allowing students to cross district lines to attend public schools outside their district. "Public school choice," though, presents its own problems, Loome said. If there is a sudden influx of students into a school from another district, new facilities may need to be built to accommodate them. Since school facilities are funded locally and not by the state, local communities would end up footing the bill for students outside their district.
"In theory, it is a great idea," she said. "But really, the best idea is to make sure all schools are great and have the resources to serve our children well."
Empower Mississippi, an organization that advocates for vouchers, or as they frame them, "school choice," applauded the Senate's extension of ESAs last week.
"The popular ESA program is giving many families who need options the opportunity to find a school where their child with special needs can thrive," Empower Mississippi President Grant Callen said in a Feb. 14 press release. "Participants are happy, and hundreds more are waiting to get in. While there are still many improvements to be made to the program so that it can serve families better and more can participate, the Senate's action today shows parents around the state that their legislators want their children to succeed."
Private Schools Rely on Public Schools for Special Needs Services
In December, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, which provides oversight of publicly funded programs, released a report on the state's ESA accounts.
PEER requested information from 101 private schools that receive funds through ESAs, but just 33 responded. Of those, 22 said they depend on public schools to provide special-education services.
In other words, taxpayers often end up paying for special-needs children to go to ill-equipped private schools that rely on public schools to step in and provide their students with special-needs services. By federal law, public schools must use a portion of their federal special education funds to provide special-needs services to students in private schools.
Already, the state appropriates around $1,500 more per ESA student than per public school student. In theory, the extra funds should pay for private schools to provide special-needs services. In many cases, though, ESAs just add to the special-needs funds public schools must use to provide services to private school students.
"The amount of the voucher each child gets is $6,500—that’s way more than what a typical public school child gets from the state," Loome said Wednesday. "The reason voucher students get more is because they have special needs, and the assumption is that they are using that extra money for special education services. But they are pocketing that money and letting public schools provide them. So taxpayers are paying twice."
Making matters worse, the Legislature underfunded special education on the state-level by about $29.4 million in 2019, The Parents' Campaign's estimates show. In 2018, it estimated that the state underfunded special education by about $26.5 million.
One of the schools participating in the ESA program, Columbia Academy in Marion County, explicitly states in its student handbook that it is not equipped for children with learning disabilities.
"In consideration of the fact that Columbia Academy is a private school and receives no federal funding to provide special classes or assistance for students who may have learning disabilities or who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyslexia, and other exceptionalities," the 2018-2019 yearbook reads. "Any person wishing to enroll his or her child at Columbia Academy acknowledges this fact and must exercise good judgment as to whether the child enrolling would be best served by attending Columbia Academy."
In the PEER study, nearly 18 percent of parents whose children received ESA funds reported that they did not use them either because they "could not locate a private school meeting (the) child's needs" or because they "did not receive needed services in private school." Over the past three years, about $3.84 million worth of ESA funds were left unspent.
Nearly 40 percent of parents in the study said their children received services in public schools that were later unavailable in private schools, such as therapy and special-education instruction.
White parents used the vouchers for their children at a higher rate than black children, Loome pointed out, suggesting systemic disparities in terms of who is able to get the most use out of them.
The PEER study found that, of the children receiving ESA funds, 27 percent had autism, 48 percent had a speech or language impairment, and nearly 10 percent had an intellectual disability. Still, 48 percent said their children benefited from smaller classroom sizes and one-on-one attention that was not available in public schools.
If the Legislature properly funded public education, Loome said, that would not be an issue.
"We do know that there are cases where parents wish that their children had smaller classes or access to dyslexia therapy in their public schools," she said. "But if the legislature were doing its job and following the law and passing the funding the law requires, students would have smaller classrooms and dyslexia therapy."
Gov. Bryant: Fighting for Vouchers Like Fighting for Civil Rights
On Jan. 22, Americans for Prosperity—a national astroturf political organization that billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch fund—held a "Mississippi School Choice" rally on the Capitol steps. Astroturf groups masquerade as ground-up, grassroots political movements, but are in fact dreamed up and put into action by powerful interests. The seemingly spontaneous Tea Party protests that began in 2009 is another example of a Koch-funded astroturf movement.
Americans for Prosperity, along with the American Legislative Exchange Council, is among outside groups that, for years, have pushed for voucher legislation in Mississippi to subsidize private schools.
During another school-choice rally last February, Gov. Phil Bryant, standing in front of a group of mostly African American schoolchildren, compared the fight for vouchers to the fight for school desegregation.
"In the 1950s, African American children were told, 'You can only go to this school,'" Bryant said. "Doesn't matter if there's a better school between where your home is and where this school is at. We're going to segregate you and put you in this school. And a father and a mother in Little Rock, Arkansas, one day said, 'we're not going to stand for it anymore.'"
Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that originally ordered the desegregation of public schools, changed all that, and meant that "no more will we segregate children in the schools," Bryant said.
"You are fighting today for the same belief: your civil right," he said.
'School Choice' Borne of Resistance to Desegregation
The irony of the comparison is that many of the private schools receiving ESA vouchers sprang up in reaction to the desegregation of public schools. In the 1969 Alexander v. Holmes decision, the U.S. Supreme Court dropped the hammer on states that had slow-walked integration and forced them to comply with Brown.
Seemingly overnight, private academies began popping up across the state, supported by white parents who refused to send their sons and daughters to school with black children, as well as tuition vouchers approved by the white supremacist state government. It was the crucible of white resistance to desegregation that birthed the language of "school choice," also referred to as "freedom of choice" then.
As a junior and senior in high school, Phil Bryant attended a segregation academy. In 2017, a Jackson State University historian revealed in the Jackson Free Press that the future governor attended the Council McCluer High School in south Jackson, which the segregationist, white supremacist Citizens' Council founded in 1970. Council schools 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.
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.
The Citizens' Council also raised funds so that white children could send their children to any of the dozens of private academies that mushroomed across the state in the early '70s.
In 1986, William J. Simmons, who led the Citizens' Council for decades and served as McCluer's treasurer, told The Clarion-Ledger that yes, those academies were about race.
"The white children prefer to be with white children, and black children prefer to be with blacks," he said. "It's better, because of safety and order and those things."
The year before, Gene Barbour, who was then the headmaster of Lee Academy in Clarksdale, told The Clarion-Ledger that his school "admits blacks as long as they were cultured or want a college-prep background."
"We wouldn't take any shuckers or jivers," he added.
Columbia Academy, which now receives PEER funds despite explicitly stating it does not have amenities for special-needs students, was another 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.
He pointed dissatisfied white parents to the private schools that were opening in the decision's wake. "We have two private schools which will open next week. The Columbia Academy was organized in the fall and has been operating grades one through eight since September. Recently, its enrollment has jumped enormously," he said.
New Targets of Discrimination for Former Seg Academies
While Columbia Academy no longer prevents black students from registering, it remains overwhelmingly white. The school still discriminates in other ways, though.
The school expels girls who are pregnant or become pregnant, as well as students who it learns are already biological parents. But it encourages students to carry their pregnancies to term. "As a Christian organization, we strongly oppose abortion and encourage students to accept their responsibilities as parents," the handbook reads.
Other private schools in Mississippi, such as Canton Academy, that began as segregation schools and receive ESA funds discriminate against pregnant students, too.
In its handbook, Hillcrest Academy even allows for the possibility that, if the administration suspects a student is pregnant and the student denies it, they "may request that the student's parent/guardian provide consent for the student to submit to a pregnancy test to be administered by a physician's office."
In December, The Huffington Post identified six Mississippi schools receiving ESA funds that discriminate against LGBT students.
Parklane Academy in McComb, which pop star Britney Spears once attended, explicitly prohibits transgender students from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
The voucher funds that schools like Parklane and Hillcrest receive, the PEER study found, transfer about $1.3 million out of Mississippi public-school funds, and add a net expense to the state of about $724,000.
Bryant Likes Some Walls More Than Others
In his 2018 "school choice" rally speech, Bryant deemed vouchers vital to the cause of "freedom." Not only did he compare the fight for vouchers to the fight against segregation, but he also compared it to the fight to tear down the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Germany until its fall in 1989.
"We have these walls around schools, not to keep people out, but to keep students in," Bryant said. "So we'll say, 'You can't go to this school; you can't leave here.' It's a Berlin Wall; I call it. That's what the Berlin Wall did. It kept people in. It took their freedom. It destroyed their individual ingenuity. It kept them down, until we heard a president one day say, 'Tear that wall down.'"
Bryant is not opposed to all walls, though. He is such a big fan of President Donald Trump's idea for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that, in December, he urged the anti-immigrant president to shut the border down if Democrats in Congress refused to fund the wall's construction.
"Shut it down, Mr. President. The MAGA Nation will stand with you," the governor tweeted on Dec. 28, seemingly nonplussed by the fact that, had Trump done so, it would have immediately imperiled around 40,800 Mississippi jobs directly tied to trade with Mexico.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter at
@ashtonpittman. Email story tips to [email protected].