Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lawmakers pass bills supported by special-education advocates | The Clarion-Ledger |

Lawmakers pass bills supported by special-education advocates | The Clarion-Ledger |

Legislators on Tuesday passed several bills that supporters say will help children with disabilities, but the measures face more hurdles before becoming law.

“This is such a positive step for our kids,” said Mandy Rogers, president of the Madison-based special-needs advocacy group Parents United Together.

The House Appropriations and Insurance committees voted yes for House Bill 542, which requires the State and School Employees Health Insurance plan to cover autism therapies.

Authored by state Rep. Steve Massengill, R-Hickory Flat, the bill passed Appropriations before heading to Insurance, where it also won majority support.

In the Senate, the Education Committee approved the Mississippi Student Safety Act. Authored by state Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, the bill prevents certain student seclusion and restraint procedures in schools.

It now heads to the full Senate floor.

And a pair of identical House and Senate bills creating vouchers for special-education students also passed their respective committees and now head to the full floor.

The Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act lets special-needs children receive services outside their home school districts using state money in the form of a scholarship.

Parents would receive the equivalent of the Mississippi Adequate Education Fund base student cost, plus their child’s share of money generated under the state categorical aid programs.

MAEP base student cost is $5,140 this year, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. The aid programs average about $1,000 per pupil.

Money could be spent on private school tuition, tutors or other approved educational services but could not go toward another public school.

“This is a great day,” state Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, who authored the House version of the measure, HB765.

The companion bill in the Senate, SB 2325, was sponsored by state Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo.

The legislative action comes two days after a Clarion-Ledger investigation highlighted deficiencies with the state’s special education program, including its low 23 percent special-needs graduation rate and its outdated reliance on seclusion and restraint.

Citing the investigation during the Senate Education Committee meeting, Collins said Equal Opportunity Act would allow parents to establish their own plan for educating their special needs child.

“I believe there are hundreds, maybe thousands of children whose parents haven’t been able to get the help they need through traditional channels,” Collins said. “This is just allowing those children and parents to have a voice.”

Something must change, she said.

Tollison also called for change and vowed to dig deeper into the issue. He wants to know why so few children with disabilities graduate from Mississippi high schools and why so many get virtually worthless attendance certificates.

“Obviously, based on the articles that you wrote we’ve known this and we had been doing some things to improve services for children with special needs, but there are some other areas we need to work on.”

In addition to preventing certain procedures, Tollison’s bill, SB 2594, also provides minimum standards for seclusion and restraint and establishes reporting requirements for school districts.

Special-education advocates and organizations had been rallying support for one or more of the bills, urging parents and others to contact legislators.

The Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities issued a new call to action on Tuesday, saying the momentum must continue.

The measures will become law if parents voice their support, Collins said. Crawford said she, too, remains optimistic.

“I know we still have a long process ahead of us to get it all the way through into law, but every step that we take is one step closer,” Crawford said. “I’m still optimistic and hopeful we’ll able to push it and get it through.”

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