JACKSON Mississippi will use millions in taxpayer dollars to fund private schools after Republican leaders in the Legislature secretly slipped funds into a bill for state construction projects.
House members had already passed the bill almost unanimously on Thursday when they learned of the 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."
A bill to fund the voucher program died earlier this month, and Republicans had considered putting those funds into a teacher-pay-raise bill. House Democrats and some Republicans, though, made clear they would not vote for the pay raise if it included vouchers.
"Ridiculous! House Republican leadership told us all for days that they opposed $ for vouchers," Baria, who represents Bay St. Louis, tweeted Thursday night. "Now, they are for it! Was this the plan all along? #RotteninDenmark."
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 study 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. Citing that 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. Thursday night's move, though, resurrected it.
Late Thursday evening and on Friday morning, House members in both parties changed their votes on the funding bill from "yea" to "nay" or "present." It was not enough to change the outcome of the bill, though. A motion to reconsider also failed after House Speaker Philip Gunn whipped up enough Republican votes to block the effort.
"Leadership's bullying of reps is obviously working," Nancy Loome, who heads the Parent's Campaign, tweeted Friday morning after Gunn convinced several Republicans who initially opposed the voucher funds to switch their votes.
Earlier this month, 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 there would not be enough funds to cover it, though, and convinced House members to support a more meager $1,500 increase. 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.
GOP Rep: 'This Is Not How Business Should Be Conducted'
On the House floor Friday morning, Rep. Robert L. Johnson III, a Natchez Democrat, suggested Republicans were using sleight-of-hand with voucher funds to benefit Lt. Gov. Tate 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 Friday morning.
"I'm not going to vote for less funds for teachers and first-responders in order to bolster the political career of somebody down the hall," Johnson said.
Reeves is a supporter of the voucher program and has spoken in favor of expanding it.
Rep. Shane Barnett, a Republican from Waynesboro, chided his own party's leaders in a Facebook post Thursday night.
"Today was a low point in my time here at the Capitol," he wrote. "In an underhanded move, the lieutenant governor snuck in last minute language to increase funding for the ESA voucher program. This is (not) how business should be conducted ... I would not have voted for this bill knowing that this language was in it. In an effort to be as transparent as possible, I want to admit this mistake."
Republican leaders suggested House members should have read the bill, but the changes were made, with no notice, on the same day leadership held the vote. In recent years, Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D-Moss Point, has repeatedly introduced a resolution that would require House leaders to allow lawmakers a 24-hour period to read legislation before leadership can call a vote. It never makes it out of the Republican-led Rules Committee, which Rep. Jason White, R-West, and John Read, R-Gautier, chair.
When the Senate voted on the funding bill with the voucher money in it 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 objected to the move.
In a tweet, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, 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."
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 told the Jackson Free Press in February. "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 went 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 last month, 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
At the start of the legislative session 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.
With Friday's voucher chicanery, the 2019 legislative session ended on a sour note Friday morning. Lawmakers will not meet again until next year, after the statewide elections in November. The 2020 session will start with a new slate of legislators as well as a new governor and lieutenant governor. In Mississippi, the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter at
@ashtonpittman. Email story tips to [email protected].