BY: Brett Kittredge

After an intense four months, the 2016 legislative session came to an end last week. With multiple school choice and education reform bills already signed into law by Governor Phil Bryant, we can report that this was a great session for the children of Mississippi!

This marks the fifth consecutive year that the state legislature has adopted student-centered education reforms designed to provide accountability, transparency, and most importantly new education options for families. Contrary to what you have likely heard from the media, there is no doubt that the current political leadership is moving Mississippi in the right direction on education issues.

At Empower, we believe that every parent in Mississippi should have a range of high-quality education options and the ability to choose an education that they determine is right for their child, whether at a traditional public school, public charter school, or private school. And we can proudly announce that more parents than ever now have the opportunity to choose the educational setting for their child because of the actions of this legislature. In fact, no single legislative session has ever provided parents with more options. We still have a long way to go to ensure EVERY child in Mississippi has access to a high quality education, but this was a big session.

Here are the highlights from the 2016 legislative session:

Charter Schools: New legislation will allow students in school districts rated “C,” “D,” or “F” to cross district lines to attend a charter school. Currently, students are only allowed to attend a charter school in the district in which they reside. Before this law, students who lived in the Hinds County School District could not attend Reimagine Prep Charter School in South Jackson because it was a different school district. This law will also help many high-need areas of the state where the small size of many of the school districts, such as in the Delta, has made the creation of a charter school virtually impossible.

For families in failing school districts, charter schools can provide an opportunity to receive a high quality education. Children in Jackson are already benefiting from charters and we look forward to these same options being made available in other locations where they are needed.

Appointed Superintendents: After years of trying, the legislature finally passed a bill to make the switch to all appointed school superintendents. Mississippi was one of the last three states in the nation to elect any local school superintendents. Currently, 55 of the 140 superintendents are elected even though more than 99 percent of all superintendents nationwide are appointed. This new law will bring accountability and transparency to the process of choosing a school superintendent, while removing much of the politics from the process, and will give smaller school districts a much larger pool of candidates to choose from.

But what was most remarkable about the debate this year was how little debate there actually was in the House, where past legislation has traditionally died. There had been emotional floor speeches against the bill and organized opposition from interests groups, and we always came up short. This year there was very little fanfare to be found and just a few minutes after the bill was brought to the floor it passed with strong bi-partisan support. It passed the House 79-37 and the Senate 40-9.

This common sense change was long overdue and we are glad the legislature finally made this move.

Education Scholarship Accounts: The eligibility for the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs program has been expanded to any student who has received an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in the past five years. Currently, a student must have received an IEP in the past 18 months to be eligible. This program provides scholarships in the amount of $6,500 and these funds can be used by the parents on a variety of educational expenses.

This innovative program, which was authorized last year and is currently serving more than 330 students, allows parents to customize their child’s education by selecting the educational setting that best fits their needs. After being one of the most contentious battles of 2015, the expansion passed 32-16 in the Senate and 102-10 in the House.

Dyslexia Scholarship: First enacted in 2012 with a five-year sunset provision, the legislature renewed the Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship and removed the repealer. Under this program, students who are in first through sixth grade and have been screened properly and diagnosed with dyslexia are eligible for a voucher in an amount equal to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program base student cost, which is around $5,000.
Public policy is a team sport and none of these reforms would have been possible without the leadership of Gov. Bryant, Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, Speaker Philip Gunn, Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, and House Education Committee Chairman John Moore. I am profoundly grateful for their steadfast support of school choice and education reform. We look forward to working alongside these leaders to enact student-centered education reforms in the years ahead.

Brett Kittredge is Director of Communications for Empower Mississippi. 

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