Give Special-Needs Kids Best Possible Education

Published August 2, 2016

In 2015, Mississippi enacted the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program, creating education savings accounts for parents of special-needs students. The ESA program allows these parents to use a percentage of the money allotted for their children at traditional public schools on education alternatives instead.

Last week, the Mississippi Department of Education announced it will be using a lottery system to award the few remaining ESAs available under the program because the number of applications received for the 2016–17 school year exceeds the number of scholarships available.

Mississippi parents eligible to take advantage of this program see the value of ESAs, which grant to them the freedom to send their special-needs kids to private schools and the ability to obtain for them private tutoring, educational therapies and access to other valuable resources.

Despite the demand for ESAs and the program’s immense popularity with parents in desperate need of school choice, there are plenty of people who stand firmly against it.

In an op-ed in the Jackson Free Press, the article’s author puts the Mississippi ESA program on par with “tax breaks for out-of-state businesses,” implying parents using education money to educate their children are somehow cheating the system and depriving other public school kids with a quality education.

Similarly, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reports, “Critics say the program takes money out of the already underfunded public schools and does little to meet the needs of most special needs children.”

Contrary to these claims, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice says the evidence proves ESA programs work, especially for special-needs students and others with unique educational circumstances. “The empirical evidence indicates that private schools have a better track record of providing necessary special-education services than do public schools,” stated the Friedman Foundation on its website.

Ivory-tower elites adamantly declare school choice hurts the majority of students despite all the evidence proving the opposite to be true, but isn’t it parents’ responsibility to decide if a program “does little to meet the needs of most special needs children”? And if public schools are better at meeting the needs of most special-needs kids, why are parents clamoring to get an ESA?

Further, it’s false to say the ESA program “takes money out of the already underfunded public schools.” As the Friedman Foundation pointed out, when the Mississippi ESA program was first proposed in 2014, the state was spending “about $10,800 in state and local public funds … annually on each child with special needs.” The ESA program grants less than $7,000 per child per ESA, which means schools actually save money as a result of the program.

“Obviously, giving a family a $6,000 ESA benefit costs less in public funds than sending $10,800 to a public school to educate the same child,” wrote the Friedman Foundation, which argues the savings “actually ease the financial pressure on public schools” and make it easier for the state to fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

Let’s also not ignore the fact those against the program, the same people who claim to have children’s best interests at heart, want parents to send their kids, including those with the greatest needs, to schools they say are “underfunded.” If public schools are truly wanting for funding, as the anti-ESA people say they are, let them earn it by providing a quality education parents want for their children.

The popularity of private education, as well as its price tag, proves ESAs benefit parents, students, and taxpayers. No child in Mississippi, least of all a special-needs child, should be denied the opportunity to learn in a way that fits his or her needs.

[Originally published at the Clarion Ledger]