New state law gives some military families more school choices

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - This week, the Mississippi Department of Education will be sending notices to all school superintendents explaining a new state law that will affect many military families. The law gives families that live on base more flexibility in deciding which school district to enroll their child.

Starting this school year, military families that live on the Seabee base can choose to enroll their children in any school district adjacent to their home base. That means their children can go to schools in Biloxi, Long Beach, Harrison County, or they can choose to remain in Gulfport.

In Biloxi, parents or legal guardians who reside on Keesler Air Force Base can send their children to schools in Ocean Springs, Gulfport, Harrison County, St. Martin in Jackson County, or stay in Biloxi.

"This is one of the most important bills that I've had passed personally, because of the quality of life issue for the military," said Rep. Richard Bennett of Long Beach, the lead author of House Bill 879.

Bennett has been pushing the bill for four years now. He said when military families move into a new community, they shouldn't have to worry about getting release forms signed or having to pay tuition so their child could attend a nearby district.

"They don't have family and friends and the connections to help them with their children. So by giving them school choice, they can go to the school district that is close to the base, and where there's a nursery or a daycare. It makes it convenient for them or close to where their spouse is working," said Bennett. "It gives them that choice and makes it a little easier for them to put them in a school district that they're comfortable with."

However, several school superintendents told WLOX News the new law should not have a huge impact on their districts. That's because they've already endorsed the state's Military Compact. It's a non-binding agreement that states that they will accept military students or release them to surrounding school districts.

"The Gulfport School District actually signed off on the Military Compact back in 2008-2009, whenever that was, which allowed them to do the same thing. So the law for us really did not make any changes in our operating procedures. The only thing we asked them to do is they no longer have to fill out a transfer paper that they used to in the Gulfport School District," said Gulfport Schools Superintendent Glen East.

"It's just a gentlemen's agreement. This makes it law and the schools have to release them. They don't have to go through the hoops anymore either. If they want to go to that particular school district, all they have to do is go sign up, register at that school, and that's the end of it," said Bennett.

When asked about the possibility of school districts losing students to nearby districts, Bennett replied, "It's no different than a business coming in or a new subdivision coming in. You need to accept these kids and as far as a school district losing a kid, that's not what we're here to do. We're here to educate the kid and do what's best for the child and do the best for these parents of the military who have already sacrificed a lot."

If military families choose to enroll their child in a neighboring school district, the new law states that they have to provide their own transportation to and from school.

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