2005 Regular Session

To: Education; Appropriations

By: Senator(s) Hewes, Brown

Senate Bill 2695



     SECTION 1.  (1)  Findings and intent.  The Legislature shall make available opportunity scholarships in order to give parents and guardians the opportunity for their children to attend an eligible private or parochial school when the parent or guardian chooses to apply the equivalent of the public education funds generated by his or her child to the cost of tuition in the eligible private or parochial school as provided in this section.  Eligibility of a private or parochial school shall include the control and accountability requirements that, coupled with the exercise of parental choice, are reasonably necessary to secure the educational public purpose.

     (2)  Opportunity scholarship eligibility.  A public school student's parent or guardian may request and receive from the state an opportunity scholarship for the child to enroll in and attend a private or parochial school in accordance with the provisions of this section if:

          (a)  The student is a compulsory-school-age child as defined in Section 37-13-91;

          (b)  The parent or guardian has obtained acceptance for admission of the student to a private or parochial school eligible for the program, and has notified the Department of Education and the school district of the request for an opportunity scholarship no later than July 1 of the first year in which the student intends to use the scholarship.  For purposes of continuity of educational choice, the opportunity scholarship shall remain in force until the student returns to a public school.  At any time upon reasonable notice to the State Department of Education and the school district, the student's parent or guardian may remove the student from the private school and place the student in a public school;

          (c)  A school district shall, for each student enrolled in or assigned to a public school in its district, timely notify the parent or guardian of the student of the option of requesting a state opportunity scholarship to a private or parochial school;

          (d)  For students in the district who are participating in the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the district shall provide locations and times to take all statewide assessments required;

          (e)  Students with disabilities who are eligible to receive services from the school district under federal or state law, and who participate in this program, remain eligible to receive services from the school district as provided by federal or state law;

          (f)  If for any reason a qualified private or parochial school is not available for the student or if the parent or guardian chooses to request that the student be enrolled in the higher performing public school pursuant to state or federal law, rather than choosing to request the state opportunity scholarship, transportation costs to the higher performing public school shall be the responsibility of the school district.  The district may utilize state categorical transportation funds or other available funds for this purpose.

     (3)  Private or parochial school eligibility.  To be eligible to participate in the opportunity scholarship program, a private or parochial school must be a Mississippi private or parochial school, may be sectarian or nonsectarian, and must:

          (a)  Demonstrate fiscal soundness by being in operation for one (1) school year or provide the Department of Education with a statement by a certified public accountant confirming that the private or parochial school desiring to participate is insured and the owner or owners have sufficient capital or credit to operate the school for the upcoming year serving the number of students anticipated with expected revenues from tuition and other sources that may be reasonably expected.  In lieu of such a statement, a surety bond or letter of credit for the amount equal to the opportunity scholarship funds for any quarter may be filed with the department;

          (b)  Except for the first year of implementation, notify the Department of Education and the school district in whose service area the school is located of its intent to participate in the program under this section by May 1 of the school year preceding the school year in which it intends to participate.  The notice shall specify the grade levels and services that the private or parochial school has available for the opportunity scholarship program;

          (c)  Comply with the antidiscrimination provisions of 42 USC 2000d;

          (d)  Meet state and local health and safety laws and codes;

          (e)  Accept scholarship students on an entirely random and religious-neutral basis without regard to the student's past academic history; however, the private or parochial school may give preference in accepting applications to siblings of students who have already been accepted on a random and religious-neutral basis;

          (f)  Be subject to the instruction, curriculum and attendance criteria adopted by an appropriate nonpublic school accrediting body and be academically accountable to the parent or guardian for meeting the educational needs of the student.  The private or parochial school must furnish a school profile which includes student performance;

          (g)  Employ or contract with teachers who hold a baccalaureate or higher degree, or have at least three (3) years of teaching experience in public, private or parochial schools, or have special skills, knowledge or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in subjects taught;

          (h)  Comply with all state compulsory attendance statutes relating to private schools;

          (i)  Accept as full tuition and fees the amount provided by the state for each student;

          (j)  Agree not to compel any student attending the private or parochial school on an opportunity scholarship to profess a specific ideological belief, to pray or to worship;

          (k)  Adhere to the tenets of its published disciplinary procedures prior to the expulsion of any opportunity scholarship student.

     (4)  Obligation of program participant.

          (a)  Any student participating in the opportunity scholarship program must remain in attendance throughout the school year, unless excused by the school for illness or other good cause, and must comply fully with the school's code of conduct.

          (b)  The parent or guardian of each student participating in the opportunity scholarship program must comply fully with the private or parochial school's parental involvement requirements, unless excused by the school for illness or other good cause.

          (c)  The parent or guardian shall ensure that the student participating in the opportunity scholarship program takes all statewide assessments required.

          (d)  A participant who fails to comply with this subsection (4) shall forfeit the opportunity scholarship.

     (5)  Opportunity scholarship funding and payment.

          (a)  The maximum opportunity scholarship granted for an eligible student shall be a calculated amount equivalent to the base student cost under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.  In addition, the calculated amount shall include the per-student share of transportation funds, instructional materials funding, technology funding, and other add-on categorical funds as provided for this purpose from state funds.  The amount of the opportunity scholarship shall be the calculated amount or the amount of the private or parochial school's tuition and fees, whichever is less.  Fees eligible shall include textbook fees, lab fees and other fees related to instruction, including transportation.  The district shall report all students who are attending a private or parochial school under this program.  The students attending private or parochial schools on opportunity scholarships shall be reported separately from those students reported for purposes of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.  The public, private or parochial school that provides services to students with disabilities shall receive the funding for such services at the appropriate funding level consistent with the provisions of state law.

          (b)  Following annual notification on July 1 of the number of participants, the Department of Education shall transfer from each school district's appropriated funds the calculated amount from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and authorized categorical accounts to a separate account for the Opportunity Scholarship Program for quarterly disbursement to the parents or guardians of participating students.

          (c)  Upon proper documentation reviewed and approved by the Department of Education, the State Fiscal Officer shall make opportunity scholarship payments in four (4) equal amounts no later than September 1, November 1, February 1 and April 1 of each academic year in which the opportunity scholarship is in force.  The initial payment shall be made after Department of Education verification of admission acceptance and subsequent payments shall be made upon verification of continued enrollment and attendance at the private or parochial school.  Payment must be by individual warrant made payable to the student's parent or guardian and mailed by the Department of Education to the private or parochial school of the parent's or guardian's choice and the parent or guardian shall restrictively endorse the warrant to the private or parochial school.

     (6)  Liability.  No liability shall arise on the part of the state based on any grant or use of an opportunity scholarship.

     (7)  Rules.  The State Board of Education may adopt rules to implement the provisions of this section.  Rules shall include penalties for noncompliance.  However, the inclusion of eligible private or parochial schools within options available to Mississippi public school students does not expand the regulatory authority of the state, its officers, or any school district to impose any additional regulation of private or parochial schools beyond those reasonably necessary to enforce requirements set forth in this section.

     (8)  Openings for nonresident students.  Each private and parochial school choosing to participate in the open enrollment policy shall establish the maximum number of students which may be enrolled under the policy in each particular grade or program in the school.  These numbers shall be reported to the State Department of Education before the date on which applications are made available to students.

     (9)  Transportation.  The parent, guardian or custodian of a student enrolled in a private or parochial school under the opportunity scholarship program shall be responsible for transporting the student to and from school or a regular bus stop in that school's attendance area.

     SECTION 2.  This act shall take effect and be in force from and after July 1, 2005.