Parents Cheer for School Choice at Mississippi Capitol

Published February 8, 2016

School choice advocates in Mississippi held a rally at the Mississippi State Capitol to celebrate educational reform victories of the past, such as the passage of legislation that made available charter schools and education scholarship accounts, and to discuss the future of the pro-liberty education reform movement in the state.

Taking On the ‘Establishment’

Gov. Phil Bryant (R) and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) spoke at the rally in the Capitol’s rotunda. Bryant criticized the state’s “educational establishment” for opposing previous school choice reforms, and he said he wants the expansion of school choice to be his primary legacy.

Bryant signed into law a bill permitting charter schools in 2013, and in 2015, he signed an educational scholarship account bill for parents of children with special needs.

“The education establishment was determined to keep these children trapped in failing schools or in mediocre schools that didn’t provide the care they needed,” Bryant said at the rally. “They built Berlin Walls around them, not to keep people out, but to keep these children in. We pushed through that, and we will again.”

ESA Expansion Considered

Expansion of the state’s educational savings account (ESA) program for parents with children with special needs is one route school choice advocates are considering to help provide greater educational opportunities. The program is currently capped at 500 students with an individualized education plan for the 2015–16 school year, with an additional 500 being eligible for the program in 2016–17.

Under the program, participating parents receive $6,500 to use on tuition, books, and other approved learning aids. Out of 251 who applied, only 107 children received ESAs in the first year of the program.

Educating Lanna

Martha Beard, whose adopted daughter Lanna was among the students to receive an ESA in the inaugural year, told the crowd about the positive effects the program has had on her family. With the ESA, the Beard family can afford to send Lanna to a specialized school in Jackson, New Summit School, to help meet her needs.

“We loved what they had to offer, but [prior to the ESA program], there was no way for us to afford the tuition and the fees associated with the school,” Beard said. “Then we heard about the ESA for children with special needs that the [Mississippi State Legislature] passed and Gov. Bryant signed into law. It was an answered prayer.

“Because of that law, we can send Lanna to the school where she can receive the best resources and education available for her,” Beard said. “Since Lanna has started attending New Summit School, she’s become a new person. She’s not the same child. Lanna has more confidence in herself. She feels she can do things that were once impossible for her.”

Although charter schools are allowed in Mississippi, they can be placed only in failing districts, and students are unable to cross district lines to attend them. Both Bryant and Reeves have said they would support expanding charter schools to other school districts.

“As I see the progress that’s been made, I’m overjoyed,” Reeves said at the rally. “I look forward to continuing to work with Gov. Bryant, [House] Speaker Philip Gunn, and leaders in both the House and the Senate to continue our efforts to make sure every kid in our state gets an opportunity for a quality education which will lead to long-term success.”

Steve Wilson ([email protected]) writes from Pearl, Mississippi. An earlier version of this article was published by at Reprinted with permission.

The photo “Mississippi State Capitol building in Jackson” is copyright © 2009 Charlie Brenner, and was made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.