An innovative new education law in Mississippi expands school choice options for parents of special-needs students.
After protests arose because the initial rollout of the law placed onerous burdens on parents who applied, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDOE) relaxed the restrictions, and the law is now showing great promise.
Senate Bill 2695 set up a five-year pilot program for up to 500 parents per year in Mississippi to apply for educational savings accounts (ESAs) in order to customize the education of their special-needs children. The ESA legislation passed into law in April. Funding for each ESA can amount to up to $6,500. Parents can use ESA funding for a wide variety of services, including private school tuition, tutoring, and advanced therapy.
Early in June, as the July 1 launch approached, MDOE received criticism for the burdens it placed on parents applying for the program.
Empower Mississippi, a free-market think tank, issued a strong statement criticizing the rollout of the program. The criticisms included a very short application window over summer vacation, the inability to view application documents prior to the opening of the application window, and limited ways to send in applications.
Fixing the Problems
It appears officials addressed many of these problems, according to Empower Mississippi. Empower Mississippi President Grant Callen says MDOE has increased the application window and posted the application online.
“This is a great improvement from the initial 10-day application window, which would have limited access to these scholarships,” said Callen. “They’re now saying that once the enrollment has reached 50 percent of the available ESAs, all approved applications will be placed on a waiting list and MDOE will determine a deadline for a random selection process for the remaining scholarships.”
Callen lauded the innovative nature of this new law.
“This law represents a dramatic leap forward in the way we educate students with special needs, and more broadly, the way we think about public education in Mississippi,” said Callen. “In this age of innovation and personalization, why not allow parents the freedom to customize an education that they determine is right for their child? We’ve talked in America since the time of Thomas Jefferson about education funding, but very little about education delivery. This law will provide the proper incentives for achieving desired outcomes for students with special needs.”
Advancing Education Freedom
Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst for the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, says this ESA program represents a great advance in education freedom.
“ESAs empower families to completely customize their child’s education,” said Bedrick. “This is particularly important for families that have students with special needs. Sometimes, a student’s assigned district school is unable to meet his or her needs, so the ESA enables his or her parents to seek out alternatives. In Arizona, a 2013 survey found that parents of students with special needs were unanimously satisfied with the education they were able to purchase for their children with an ESA.”
Bedrick says this model is the future of education in Mississippi and other states.
“In Arizona, the ESA program was originally limited to students with special needs, as in Mississippi,” said Bedrick. “However, the legislature has subsequently expanded program eligibility several times. It now also includes students assigned to district schools with a ‘D’ or ‘F’ letter grade according to the state accountability system; children of active-duty military members; youth adopted from the state’s foster care system; and students living on Native American reservations. I expect that we will see states such as Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee expand their eligibility criteria over time as well.”
Jeffery Reynolds ([email protected]) writes from Portland, Oregon.
Image by woodleywonderworks.
Ashley Bateman, “Mississippi Passes Nation’s Third ESA Bill,” April 20, 2015, Heartlander: http://news.heartland.org/print/185291
Jason Bedrick and Lindsey Burke, “The Next Step in School Choice,” National Affairs, Winter 2015: http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-next-step-in-school-choice
Geoff Pender, “Special ed voucher roll-out criticized; MDE defends process,” The Clarion-Ledger, June 10, 2015: http://www.clarionledger.com/story/mslife/2015/06/09/special-needs-vouchers/28746935/
“Arizona Parents more satisfied with ESA than public school,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, October 10, 2013,: http://www.edchoice.org/Newsroom/News/Arizona-parents-more-satisfied-with-ESA-than-public-school.aspx