Governor’s review of the 2015 Legislative Session

The Clarion-Ledger summarized the 2015 session as follows:

For all the talk of broad tax cuts, or “a taxpayer raise,” the only break rank-and-file Mississippians will see from the 2015 legislative session is $5, from the elimination of vehicle inspection stickers.

The state’s GOP leadership, holding both a House and Senate majority, passed competing tax cut plans, and each chamber initially killed the other’s. They reached a compromise only late in the session, but then Democrats prevented the super-majority vote needed for passage.

This election-year session, which wrapped up Thursday, at times appeared more about politics or minutiae than major policy. Lawmakers argued over joining a drive to compel Congress to balance its budget (they did), banning trade with Iran (they didn’t, after realizing Toyota might have Iranian investments), exempting children from vaccinations for their parents’ philosophical beliefs (they’re not), feeding deer meat to prison inmates (they’re not) and whether to allow homeschooled children to play public school sports (they didn’t).

At one point in the session, lawmakers couldn’t get a bipartisan two-thirds vote to delay business for a day for an ice storm.

“As always, you get some things you want and some things you don’t,” Gov. Phil Bryant said of a legislative session where he saw several of his initiatives shot down.

In his own statement, Gov. Bryant praised the legislature for passing the following legislation to him:

  • Education vouchers for special needs students (SB 2695)
  • Strengthening 2nd Amendment protections (SB 2394, SB 2619)
  • Improving state contracting procedures (HB 825, SB 2400)
  • Investing in Huntington Ingalls in Pascagoula and Batson Children’s Hospital in Jackson
  • Increasing state trooper pay (SB 2500)
  • Medical licenses for retired military practicing on voluntary basis (HB 215)
  • Increasing public hospital transparency (SB 2407)
  • Waiving out-of-state tuition for military veterans (SB 2127)
  • Standing with Israel by restricting state financial involvement with entities conducting energy-related business with Iran (HB 1127)

See the Governor’s full statement below.

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Gov. Bryant to sign special needs education voucher bill into law

In an effort to meet special needs students’ educational requirements and increase graduation rates (currently 22.5% compared to 74.5% for all others), the House and Senate have concurred on Senate Bill 2695 sending it to Gov. Bryant for signing into law.

The bill will provide $6,500 scholarships, sometimes called “vouchers,” to participating students to be used by parents to acquire education that is oriented to the specific needs of their special needs student. The program will be open to 500 students in the 2015-2016 school year; 250 vouchers will be given on a first-come, first-served basis and 250 vouchers will be awarded by lottery.

A similar bill failed to pass the House in 2014. Rep. Carolyn Crawford of Pass Christian vowed to bring the bill back for the 2015 legislative session and, working with Sen. Nancy Collins, pushed the bill to the governor.

Arizona and Florida are the only other two states that have similar programs which are called Educational Savings Accounts.

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House passes several Senate bills

With March 11th being the deadline for the House to take action on bills and constitutional amendments originating in the Senate, several significant issues were settled.  From the House of Representatives Weekly Summary, the following issues were approved:

Senate Bill 2389 is an Article V vehicle to amend the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced federal budget and limit the ability of Congress to raise the debt limit without states’ approval. The bill was passed by the House but not without some contention between Democrats and Republicans.

Senate Bill 2695, the “Special Needs Bill,” was passed to set-up a pilot program to give parents of special needs students allotments (or vouchers up to $6,500) to can seek the educational opportunities appropriate and best suited for their children’s specific situation.

Senate Bill 2161 establishes a commission to study Common Core State Standards, determine suitability for Mississippi school children, and present recommendations to the State Board of Education.

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Education bills approved in the Senate

The Mississippi Senate passed SB 2695, Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, on Wednesday. The measure is designed to help special needs students by providing a $7,000 voucher, provided on pre-paid debit cards, to seek educational services outside the public school system. If enacted into law, it will be limited to 500 students in the first year. The estimated $3.5 million first year cost would be paid from the state’s general fund and not the Mississippi Adequate Education Program earmarked funds. Funds could only use the funds at Mississippi Department of Education approved vendors.

Gov. Phil Bryant and the National Excellence in Education Foundation praised the passage. However, the Parents Campaign opposes SB 2695 because it does not help all students with disabilities and sees it as a step toward privatization of public schools.

SB 2695 will proceed to the House for consideration where a similar bill, HB 294 sponsored by Carolyn Crawford of Pass Christian, awaits passage.

Senate Bill 2161 was passed yesterday and will establish the Mississippi Commission on College and Career Readiness to recommend new education standards to replace the Common Core States Standards adopted.  Several Tea Party conservatives, namely Senators Chris McDaniel, Melanie Sojourner, and Michael Watson, protested since the Senate refused to add language making the adoption of the commission recommendations mandatory. Those objecting to SB 2161 also fear that the Commission could recommend standards that simply mirror Common Core standards.

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Yes, There is a Democrat Primary on June 3rd

Democrat U.S. Senate Candidate Travis Childers and 4th Congressional District Democrat opponents Trish Causey and Matt Moore met last Thursday to promote the Democrat Primary on June 3rd.

Childers emphasized his commitment to public education and against education vouchers.

Causey emphasized her advocacy for women’s and gay rights.  Moore stated that, based on Democrat numbers alone, they should be able to win in the general elections despite Mississippi being considered a Republican stronghold.

All 3 expressed commitment to a minimum wage increase, healthcare coverage for the working poor, and women’s rights.

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The cost of education in Mississippi

The federal government provides $800 Million of Mississippi’s $3.3 Billion education budget.  The Daily Journal asserts that “Cutting federal school funding [is] not realistic” and then challenges the reader to “Imagine what the impact would be if 25 percent of the money coming into Mississippi’s public schools suddenly disappeared.”

Challenge accepted.

With 492,586 students enrolled in public schools according to the Mississippi Department of Education, the state spends an average of $6,699 per student per year.  For comparison, annual tuition rates for some Gulf Coast private schools were sampled, albeit not scientifically.  The amounts below include tuition, registration, and other mandatory fees that could be identified on the respective institutions’ public websites:

As it turns out, private school cost is less than public school funding.  Are the buses, school lunches, superintendents, school boards, a Board of Education and State Superintendent, and annual fights over teacher pay and MAEP adding value commensurate with cost?  Probably not.  Even though private school teachers are typically paid less than their public school counterparts, private school parents still find “value” in sending their children to them.  Quality education is not so closely linked to teacher pay as the NEA, AFT, Mississippi Legislature, and others would have us believe.  But I digress.

Back to the original challenge:  What would be the impact to Mississippi schools without the federal subsidy?  Answer:  Mississippi would still have enough funding to send each student to a private school.  Less the $800 Million, the amount per student ($5,075 per year) is almost enough to send a student to any private school on the list and more than enough with multi-child or “participating member” discounts offered by every private school.  Yet The Parents’ Campaign and Better Schools, Better Jobs demand more funding to meet the levels prescribed under MAEP as if funding is one of the most critical items for improving  the quality of education.

Mississippi can do better and increased funding is not a panacea.  Washington, DC spends nearly $30,000 per student and is ranked only 0.5% ahead of Mississippi in Education Weeks’ Education Counts report!  In fact, the Cato Institute found that “this spending figure is about triple what the DC voucher program spends per pupil—and the voucher students have a much higher graduation rate and perform as well or better academically.”

Imagine this:  Parents send their children to private schools effectively sacrificing their “entitlement” to $6,699 per student while spending another +/-$5,000 per student to do so.  By “voting with their dollars,” these parents demonstrate the increased value of the private schools they send their children to.  An education voucher system would allow all Mississippians to have that same opportunity, rich or poor.  A means adjusted voucher system could even save the state money while still providing better education value to the most needy students.

While the state can’t be weaned off federal funding overnight, getting the politics, bureaucracy, and overhead of the federal government out of education would be helpful to Mississippi and our country.  Returning education to local control, local oversight, local responsibility and exposing it to competition would be even better.

Being a net taker of federal “welfare” has yet to help Mississippi.  An education system that adds value will.

Imagine that.

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Education vouchers wildly successful in Louisiana

In the wake of the Mississippi House’s rejection of education vouchers for 500 special needs students, Louisiana reports 91.9% of parents are happy with the Louisiana Scholarship Program.  The program provides funds for parents to choose a school of their choice if they have incomes below 250% of the federal poverty limit and are enrolled in a public school with a C, D, or F grade.  Of those parents, 91.6% said they are happy with academic progress.

Louisiana’s program now supports 6,490 families.  Despite documented academic successes which led Louisiana’s legislature to roll-out the program statewide, the program had to survive a Justice Department lawsuit last year that alleged the program “impede[d] desegregation.”  Keep in mind, all the students benefitting from the vouchers are poor and most are minorities!

Just as Louisiana had to fight unions and the federal government to get and then keep the voucher program in place, Mississippi will have to fight those that benefit from the status quo.  Where does your state Senator or state Representative stand?  Below is how Gulf Coast Representatives voted on vouchers for special needs students:

  • Jeramey D. Anderson (110)–Nay
  • David Baria (122)–Nay
  • Sonya Williams-Barnes (119)–Nay
  • Manly Barton (109)–Yea
  • Richard Bennett (120)–Yea
  • Charles Busby (111)–Yea
  • Carolyn Crawford (121)–Yea
  • Scott DeLano (117)–Yea
  • Casey Eure (116)–Yea
  • Jeffrey S. Guice, Harrison & Jackson Counties (114)–Yea
  • Greg Haney (118)–Nay
  • Timmy Ladner, Hancock & Harrison Counties (93)–Yea
  • Doug McLeod (107)–Yea
  • Randall H. Patterson (115)–Nay
  • John O. Read (112)–Yea
  • Patricia Willis, Hancock & Harrison Counties (95)–Yea
  • H.B. “Hank” Zuber, III (113)–Yea

Even if they voted with your desires in the 2014 session, be sure to let them know what you think.  Nothing keeps them from changing their vote in the future except accountability to constituents.

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