Research & Commentary: Mississippi Families, Private Schools Extremely Eager for a Universal ESA Program

Published January 31, 2019

A bill introduced in the Mississippi Senate would establish the Mississippi Education Savings Scholarship Accounts Program, a universal education savings account (ESA) program. If passed, ESAs would be available to parents of public school children to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, as well as to cover the costs of textbooks, tutoring services, online courses, and educational therapies and services. Additionally, the ESAs could be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT and ACT.

The funding amount of each ESA account would be equivalent to 90 percent of the state “base support level” for district schools prescribed in Mississippi law.

Copious empirical research on ESAs and other school choice programs has shown these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. 

Students at private schools are also less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs such as ESAs improve the mental health of participating students.

It is probably for these reasons that ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. The results of EdChoice’s sixth annual Schooling in America survey, released in December 2018, found 74 percent of respondents favor ESAs, up 3 percentage points from 2017. According to the survey, support for ESAs is 76 percent among Millennials, 72 percent for those with incomes under $40,000 a year, 79 percent for blacks, 70 percent for Hispanics, 72 percent among self-identified Democrats, and 77 percent among independents. Furthermore, 78 percent of public school teachers surveyed support ESA programs.

These results are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s latest annual National School Choice Poll, which shows 78 percent support for ESA programs from likely voters in the 2020 election. Support for ESAs in this poll sits at 84 percent among Millennials, 86 percent from blacks, 84 percent from Hispanics, 85 percent from Republicans, 78 percent from independents, and 73 percent from Democrats.

A December 2017 Empower Mississippi poll revealed 65 percent of Mississippians support expanding the state’s current ESA program for students with special needs—the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program—into a universal program that would be available to every student in the state. Further, 62 percent stated they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports the expansion of the ESA program. (It should also be noted 91 percent of participating parents report being satisfied with the state’s special-needs ESA, according to a December 2018 report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review.)

Private schools are also enthusiastic about the prospect of school choice programs. A 2018 survey from Empower Mississippi found 64 percent of respondents would likely participate in a voucher program similar to an ESA, if one were available, while only 9 percent said they would be unlikely to participate. The report also concluded there are currently 7,800 seats to 10,350 seats available for students in private schools throughout the state that students could take advantage of if private school choice programs were to be expanded.

The potential economic impacts of ESAs in Mississippi were detailed in a 2018 report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and Mississippi State University’s Institute for Market Studies, which estimated a universal ESA program could, due to increasing high school graduation rates and a decrease in criminal activity, result in more than $1.6 billion in accrued economic impact to the state. These impacts include up to 7,800 more high school graduates by the year 2036, leading to $1.6 billion in social benefits, as well as a reduction in the number of felons of 10,000 over the same time period and a reduction in the number of misdemeanants by close to 14,000, producing a $384 million reduction in social costs. They also estimate a universal ESA could cause Mississippi to move out of its current position, last place, in per-capita personal income. The improvement – a $2,300 growth in per-capita personal income by 2036 – could happen in just 14 years, the researchers say.

Both Mississippi private schools and Mississippi families are ready for a universal ESA program. Public schools should not hold a monopoly on education. By implementing a universal ESA program, legislators can ensure all Mississippi children have the opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information about education savings accounts.

Mississippi’s Game Changer: The Economic Impacts of Universal School Choice in Mississippi
This report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and Mississippi State University’s Institute for Market Studies estimates more than $1.6 billion in economic impact could accrue because of an increase in high school graduation rates and a decrease in criminal activity resulting from the implementation of a universal ESA program.

Mississippi Statewide School Choice Survey
According to this poll of 503 likely voters by Empower Mississippi, 77 percent of Mississippians support giving parents the right to use the tax dollars associated with their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school that best serves their needs. Further, 65 percent support expanding the state’s ESA program for students with special needs into a universal program that would be available to every student in the state.

Exploring Mississippi’s Private Education Sector: The Mississippi Private School Survey
This survey from Empower Mississippi shows private schools in the Magnolia State have a high interest in participating in expanded school choice programs and have the space to accommodate thousands of additional students.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

2018 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent and Teacher Experiences, Accountability, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Arianna Wilkerson, a state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.