The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) awarded its remaining special-needs education savings accounts (ESAs) by lottery this year, after demand for the program topped the number of ESAs available.
Mississippi’s Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, enacted in 2015, gives parents of special-needs children access to a portion of the public money otherwise allotted to their children in a public school to use on educational resources such as homeschooling textbooks, private school tuition, and tutoring.
Empower Mississippi, a nonprofit organization that advocates for greater education choice, reports, “Last year, in the first year of the program, 251 of the 434 available scholarships had been awarded by the beginning of the school year.”
In 2016, 425 scholarships were made available. The first 250 slots were filled on a first-come, first-served basis, and 304 approved applicants competed for the 175 scholarships remaining, which MDE awarded by lottery in July.
“Enrollment in the program has grown by 70 percent over a one-year period, and the number of approved applications has increased by more than 120 percent during the same time period,” Empower Mississippi reported.
Parents Say They’re Satisfied
Michael Chartier, state programs and government relations director for EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, says a growing number of parents are realizing the value of ESAs.
“The response in Mississippi has been great,” Chartier said. “They’ve hit the cap this year and had to go to a lottery. That shows the power of these ESAs, when [parents] find out what they can get for their children’s needs.”
Brett Kittredge, director of communications at Empower Mississippi, says parents’ embrace of school choice is what matters most.
“From the parents we’ve been able to survey, I haven’t found anyone who was unhappy with their child’s education [or] with their child’s program or setting, and that is what matters most: how satisfied the parents are and do they believe their needs are being met,” Kittredge said.
Meeting the Need
Kittredge says Mississippi’s special-needs ESA was created in response to a clearly defined problem.
“In 2014, we had the initial push for the bill,” Kittredge said. “Around that time, there was a story out that showed our graduation rate for special-needs students was around 22–23 percent. So, we knew who had the most need in our state for a better educational opportunity, and that better chance was not available to many students.”
Kittredge says parents are using ESAs to make sure the education system meets their children’s diverse needs.
“The bulk is used to pay for private school tuition, but we’ve also seen it used for tutoring, therapy, and textbooks,” Kittredge said. “That’s the beauty of the ESA, compared to a traditional voucher.”
Hope for Expansion
The law says the program is “subject to appropriation from the general fund,” meaning funding increases or decreases depending on the amount appropriated by the Mississippi Legislature. The value of the ESA increases or decreases depending on the base student cost, which is the funding amount the state’s legislature sets to educate each student in public schools in the state.
Kittredge says growth of the ESA program has been slowed by limited funding.
“It is funded outside of the regular funding formula as a separate appropriation contingent upon legislative funding,” Kittredge said. “This year, the [state] revenues were basically neutral, so the program was only levelly funded,” meaning there was no funding increase for the 2016–17 school year.
The ESA law limits the increase of scholarships to 500 every year for five years, and the maximum number of total scholarships allowed is 2,500. The cap for the 2016–17 school year was technically 1,000 scholarships, but the lack of increased funding for the program meant the number of spots remained similar to the first year: 425.
“Last year we didn’t hit the cap, and partially that was due to the timeline of applying,” Kittredge said. “This year we got to the cap. Hopefully, the Legislature will see that and we’ll at least be able to fund the students who want to be in the program.”
Chartier says it’s wrong “to shortchange students just because they’re choosing another option.”
Chartier says he’s optimistic legislative support for ESAs will continue.
“It’s the champions in these states that really lead the charge,” Chartier said. “State Rep. Carolyn Crawford (R-Pass Christian) is a huge supporter of ESAs, has a very good relationship with the state legislature there, and she’s really a strong champion who advocates for this program. As we continue to demonstrate the need and success of these programs, I think the Legislature will follow suit and continue to vote for these programs.”
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.