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Advocates celebrate school choice wins and look to more expansion this session

TESTIMONY: Midtown Charter school student Joshua Crockett says his charter school is going to help him achieve his goal of being an engineer. Photo by Steve Wilson

Gov. Phil Bryant said school choice was all about breaking down walls — using the stories of Joshua at the walls of Jericho and the Berlin Wall — to illustrate his point.

The Republican-led Mississippi Legislature is aiming to break down more walls with school choice expansion as state leaders and school choice advocates celebrated recent accomplishments with more than 1,000 students and parents visiting the Capitol Rotunda.

Bryant also compared the battle over school choice to Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools nationwide.

"You're fighting today for the same belief, your civil right, your civil liberty to take your child and enroll them in a school of your choice, not one the state or the federal government is telling you to put them in," Bryant said during his address.

Empower Mississippi and Americans for Prosperity hosted a School Choice Week event at the Capitol Tuesday and there were success stories such as Joshua Crockett from Midtown Public Charter School.

The 12-year-old seventh grader told the crowd he wants to become an engineer and said his charter school is helping him prepare for his goals.

SPEAKING OUT: Leah, with her husband Blake Ferretti, told attendees why the fight over school choice is important to them. Photo by Steve Wilson

Cleveland mother Leah Ferretti has two sons with dyslexia and she told her story of how she had to fight her local school district to get them the help they needed. She earned a master's in dyslexia education from Mississippi College so she could help her sons.

"We have a right, a choice to where we send our children," Ferretti said. "We have a right for them to be happy and successful. We know what's best for our children. We are there for them when they succeed and when they fail. We are simply asking for a choice to let us educate our children as we see fit."

Two big topics this session are the possible expansion of the state's education scholarship account program from just children with special needs to all children in the state and a rewrite of the state's school funding formula.

Two similar bills would expand the ESA program: House Bill 1339 sponsored by state Rep. Charles Busby (R-Pascagoula) and Senate Bill 2623 sponsored by Senate Education Committee chairman Gray Tollison (R-Oxford).

The state’s education scholarship program is open to 1,000 students with special needs, and parents can use an allotted $6,637 on tuition, tutors, books and other educational aids.

A formula that Republican legislative leaders say is "student-centered" would also help, said House Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton). The House passed a bill, House Bill 957, last week that would scrap the existing Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula and replace it with one with a base student cost plus weights for low income, special needs, gifted and non-English language students.

Bryant and the Legislature have made a strong push in the past four years toward school choice. Bryant signed into law a bill in 2013 that allowed charter schools and put his signature on a bill that created the special needs ESA program in 2015.

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