Mississippi lawmakers get mixed grades for school choice support

WHAT’S YOUR SCORE: Empower Mississippi has released a educational choice scorecard for all of Mississippi’s legislators.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

It’s all in the letter grade.

A new scorecard released by Empower Mississippi, a nonprofit educational choice advocacy group, shows how every member of the Mississippi Legislature voted on four school choice bills. The scorecard for the Senate is here, while the House scorecard is here.

All of the A-plus votes in both houses were Republicans. Two Democrats in the House — Deborah Dixon (Raymond) and Bennett Malone (Carthage) — earned A-grades. On the other side of the coin, one Republican in the Senate — Nickey Browning (Ponotoc) — received a failing grade. In the House, six representatives earned an F grade.

Empower Mississippi founder and president Grant Callen said competition lifts all schools, public and private.

“Education choice can really improve education for Mississippi’s children and for the broader public school system,” Callen said. “That’s the beauty of educational choice. Not only individual children who choose another option benefit, the children who stay behind in public schools.”

Those four bills used for the grades were:

  • Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship — House Bill 1031, passed in 2012, created vouchers for children with dyslexia to attend private schools if their current public school doesn’t have a program to help those with reading disorders. The private school must have an accredited dyslexia therapy program.
  • Mississippi Charter School Act — House Bill 369, passed in 2013, allowed the creation of charter schools in Mississippi and set guidelines under which they are governed.
  • Speech-Language Therapy Scholarship — House Bill 896, passed in 2013, created vouchers for children who need speech therapy to attend private schools if their current public school doesn’t have a program to assist them.
  • The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act — House Bill 765, which failed on the last day of the session in 2014, would’ve given parents with children with special needs (such as autism) a voucher for a private school if their public school didn’t meet their child’s educational needs.

Legislators who voted yes for a bill received 100 percent. Those who voted present or were absent received a 50 percent score. A no vote was a zero. The percentages were added up and divided by the possible number of votes on the school choice bills.

“We came up with these four bills were a situation where we empowered parents with educational options and let them make decisions about their children’s education,” Callen said. “It’s important that we allow parents to make decisions on where their child should be. The strong majority of kids would likely stay in a public school and that’s great. But let’s give the kids who need another option, let’s give them that option.”

The news is good on the school choice front, with three important pieces of legislation passed, but Callen said the biggest priority in the upcoming session is the special needs bill.

“Absolutely,” Callen said of the bill’s chances of passage next session. “It’s coming back. We went back to the drawing board with the bill that failed at the end of last year and have been taking it to parents and asking ‘What can we do to improve it? Would you support this bill? Would it help your child?’ A large number of legislators have assured me they plan to support the bill in 2015. We’re working to broaden the coalition of people who supported it and come back with a bill that’s stronger than ever.”

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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