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Op-Ed: Mississippi needs to expand school choice options

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Has school choice finally arrived?

Conservatives have a massive majority in the Mississippi Legislature. Are they about to deliver real conservative policy? Or will we see the implementation of a soft-left, progressive-but-slower agenda to expand government?

When it comes to education, a blizzard of bills has just appeared, which suggests that we might actually see something authentically conservative soon.

The Mississippi Student Freedom bill, House Bill 1449, is the most exciting piece of legislation I have seen in the House in three years.

It would give families the right to have their child’s share of state education tax dollars paid into their child’s own Magnolia Scholarship Account. Each family would then be free to allocate that money to meet their child’s needs.

Think how transformative it would be if every mom and dad were allocated $8,000-$10,000 tax dollars to spend on their child’s education, be it public, private, charter school or home school?

The Mississippi Student Freedom bill would establish a system of school choice similar to what Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has implemented in Arkansas. Eligibility would be phased in over time, but the end goal would be to allow universal school choice.

“But what if lots of students from failing school districts tried to move to successful school districts?” some will ask.

The bill anticipates precisely this concern. School districts will not be compelled to take kids from out of the area if schools in those districts are already full.

Unsurprisingly, various vested interests that currently get to spend your education tax dollars are bitterly opposed to allowing families to have control. No prizes for guessing why. Turkeys might not vote for Christmas, but that does not stop Christmas from happening.

A second bill in the House, the Opportunity Scholarships bill, HB 1452, proposes a similar system of school choice, but one that would only be available for those in failing school districts. Good, if not quite excellent.

Then there is the INSPIRE bill, HB 1453, which offers a complete overhaul of our antiquated school funding system.

Mississippi’s current school funding formula, the MAEP, was created in 1997. MAEP stands for Mississippi Adequate Education Program Funding, but it has proved to be anything but adequate.

The MAEP funding system is Soviet in its clunkiness and complexity. Over the past quarter century, it has proved pretty useless at getting your tax dollars where they are supposed to go: the classroom. We ought instead to have a formula that funds students, not a system.

This is precisely what the INSPIRE bill would do. Every child in Mississippi would get an amount weighted to reflect their own needs.

For years, policymakers have talked and talked about change. Now, there is a plan to make it happen.

What is so significant about all these bills is that they have been sponsored by the House’s new education committee chairman, Rep. Rob Roberson. He has made a remarkable start in the role.

It is clear, too, that House Speaker Jason White is also a driving force behind these excellent reforms. If he is successful, Mr. White will transform our state’s education system for the better. Every family in the state should rally behind him. Indeed, every Mississippian who wants to see our state doing better should be with him 100%.

Mississippi is now surrounded on every side by school choice states that have either implemented or are implementing these kinds of changes. Here is our chance to be a leader, not a laggard.

Mississippi voters have elected an overwhelmingly conservative Legislature. It ought to be possible for them to make these mainstream conservative policies happen.

Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

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