Mississippi Passes Nation’s Third ESA Bill

Published April 20, 2015

After a lengthy legislative session and multiple amendments, Mississippi became the third state in the nation to pass an education savings account (ESA) bill, which will allow disabled students a state-funded scholarship account to customize individual learning tracks.

Senate Bill 2695 would establish the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs (EOSSN) program. EOSSN would allow customization of education for disabled students by directing funds into parents’ hands while reducing the average annual spending per disabled pupil to $6,500, the maximum amount of each scholarship. The program will allow 500 students to access funds in its first year and will allow a total of 1,000 students in its second year.

Currently, only 23 percent of Mississippi special-needs students graduate high school.

Reflects Renewed Interest in ESAs

Education scholarship accounts, also known as education savings accounts, have been available for years in federal-government forms, such as Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, but state-funded programs are a newer phenomenon.

Sen. Nancy Collins (R-Tupelo) proposed SB 2695 because she says similar programs in Arizona and Florida prove ESAs provide quality educational opportunities for those who have access to them.

Foundation for Excellence in Education Chief Executive Officer Patricia Levesque says she supports Mississippi’s new legislation.

“All students should be afforded every opportunity possible to achieve success in school and life, and parents should be the key decision makers,” said Levesque. “The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act recognizes this by allowing parents to customize individual education and therapy plans for their children with special needs.”

Successful Grassroots Campaign

In 2014, a similar bill died on the Mississippi House floor. The 2015 version of the bill passed following the implementation of several amendments and a lengthy pre-session campaign.

“We went to work immediately building support for this initiative at the grassroots level,” said Grant Callen, founder and president of Empower Mississippi. “We hosted discussion groups with special-needs parents all over the state and worked district by district to build local support. One by one, legislators heard the outcry from parents and began to support the bill.”

Gov. Phil Bryant (R), Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R), and House Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) worked to convince individual legislators to pass SB 2695, Callen said.

“Gov. Phil Bryant has been an enthusiastic supporter of this bill from day one,” Callen said. “He advocated for it [in 2014], talked about it this year in his State of the State address, and worked this year to help secure the votes for its passage.”

“Mississippi became the third state in the nation to empower the parents of students with special needs, providing them with a broad array of educational choices,” Reeves said in a statement. “For two years, we fought to give these students an opportunity at an education that best fits their needs. I congratulate the parents and students who worked so hard to pass this important next step in Mississippi’s education reform efforts.”

Awaiting Governor’s Signature

Bryant signed SB 2695 into law on April 16.

“Gov. Bryant is a school choice supporter and a great champion for this special-needs ESA program,” Callen said. “I think if we prove that the ESA model can work for meeting the educational needs of students with special needs, legislators may want to consider expanding this program to other underserved students. This program was intentionally small in scope at the start … But whether it’s ever expanded or not, for those families who choose to participate, I’m confident it’s going to be a life-changer.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

Image by Jennifer Cowley.