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Mississippi Parents Could Receive Money, Vouchers For Special Needs Students

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Cross-posted from On Special Education blog.

Just 23 percent of Mississippi students with disabilities graduate in four years with a regular diploma, a dismal outcome that is driving two bills currently in the Mississippi legislature. 

The "Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs" bill, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Nancy Collins from Tupelo, would create a five-year pilot voucher program to provide, each year, up to 500 new students with disabilities funds to spend on educational needs, including tuition to private schools. The voucher amount would be $7,000 per student for the 2015-16 school year, and the proposed cost is $3.5 million for the first year.

The bill passed the Senate education committee Jan. 27 and a similar bill is awaiting action in the state House. The sponsor of the House bill, Republican Carolyn Crawford of Pass Christian, told the Jackson Free Press that "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." 

If the bill were to pass, it would join two other voucher programs in the state; one voucher that is specifically for students with dyslexia, and another program that allows elementary students with speech and language disabilities to attend private schools that have a speech and language program.

The bill's opponents include voucher critics and those who believe the proposal would take money away from public schools (though the funds for the pilot program would come from the state's general fund.)  Rep. Nick Bain, a Democrat from Corinth, has introduced a special education bill he believes would bridge that gap between the two sides: It would provide more transparency around special education funding, create a fund that qualified parents could tap for therapies and respite care, and create a statewide autism services coordinator. 

Another measure, introduced by Democratic Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis, would pay for what would be called the Mississippi Office of Education Special Needs Counsel, which would provide information to parents about their legal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This proposed office would also oversee lawyers to represent parents in special education disputes. It is in committee. 

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