School choice advocates in Mississippi held a rally Tuesday at the state Capitol where they celebrated past victories such as charter schools and education scholarship accounts, but the future was the primary topic of discussion.
Both Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves spoke at the rally at the Capitol’s rotunda. Bryant assailed the state’s “educational establishment” for opposing previous school choice reforms and said he wanted expansion of school choice to be his primary legacy.
“The education establishment was determined to keep these children trapped in failing schools or in mediocre schools that didn’t provide the care they needed,” Bryant said. “They built Berlin Walls around them, not to keep people out, but to keep these children in. We pushed through that and we will again.”
With Republican supermajorities in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature, the way to pro-school choice reform should be simpler than previously.
Expansion of the state’s ESA program for parents with children with special needs could be a possibility. The program is capped at 500 students with an Individualized Education Plan this school year, with an additional 500 eligible for the program next year. Participating parents receive $6,500 to use on tuition, books and other approved learning aids. Out of 251 who applied, only 107 received ESAs in the first year of the program.
Martha Beard, a parent whose adopted daughter Lanna was among the students to receive an ESA in the inaugural year, told the crowd about the program’s effect on her family. With the ESA, the Beard family can afford to send their daughter to a specialized school in Jackson — New Summit — to help meet her needs.
“We loved what they had to offer, but at that time, there was no way for us to afford the tuition and the fees associated with the school,” Beard said. “Then we heard about the ESA for children with special needs that the Legislature passed and Gov. Bryant signed into law. It was an answered prayer.
“Because of that law, we can send Lanna to the school where she can receive the best resources and education available for her. Since Lanna has started attending New Summit School, she’s become a new person. She’s not the same child. Lanna has more confidence in herself. She feels she can do things that were once impossible for her.”
While charter schools are allowed in Mississippi, they can be placed only in failing districts , and students are unable to cross district lines to attend them. Both Bryant and Reeves have said they would support expanding charter schools to other school districts.
“As I see the progress that’s been made, I’m overjoyed,” Reeves said. “I look forward to continuing to work with Gov. Bryant, (House) Speaker Philip Gunn and leaders in both the House and the Senate to continue our efforts to make sure every kid in our state gets an opportunity for a quality education which will lead to long-term success.”
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