Research & Commentary: Mississippi Private Schools Eager for School Choice Programs, Have Thousands of Available Seats

Published September 14, 2017

A survey of private schools released in August 2017 by Empower Mississippi, a nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission is to improve educational choice in the Magnolia State, found 64 percent of respondents would likely participate in a school voucher program, if one were made available to them. Nine percent of respondents said they would not be likely to participate. Sixty-seven percent said they would likely participate in a tax-credit scholarship program, while only 7 percent said they would not be likely to participate.

The Empower Mississippi report concludes there are currently between 7,800 and 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.

Currently, the largest private school choice program in the state is the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program, an education savings account (ESA) program, launched in the fall of 2015. Thirteen percent of Mississippi K–12 students are eligible for the program, with 21 participating schools and 425 participating students in the program’s second year of operation in 2016–17. Accounts were funded at $6,500 for 2015–16, with the amount subject to change based on the state’s public school per-pupil funding amount. For 2016–17, the account value increased to $6,637. To be eligible for the program, students must have had a valid Individualized Education Plan (IEP) within the five years previous to applying.

So far, the program appears to be very popular with the parents with access to it. Ninety-one percent of parents enrolled in the program report they are satisfied with their ESA, with 98 percent reporting they are satisfied “with the school or educational program they chose for their child. In contrast, only 24 percent were satisfied with the public school their child had been attending before their families received their ESAs.

Another survey of likely voters by Empower Mississippi from November 2015 showed 58 percent are in favor of offering ESAs to every student throughout the state. Further, 56 percent of those polled said they would choose to remove their child from a traditional public school and take advantage of an alternative school choice option if the costs to do so would be covered.

Also according to the survey, black Mississippians strongly favor school choice programs. Seventy-three percent responded in favor of school choices programs, with 56 percent supporting ESAs for all students.

“This poll clearly shows that Mississippians of all ages—black and white, Republican and Democrat—support school choice,” said Grant Callen, President of Empower Mississippi, at the time of the survey’s release. “They want school choice options to be available to all students, and they want their elected officials to support school choice, too. … It is hard to imagine any other political issue [in Mississippi] receiving such broad, bipartisan support.”

Only 30 percent of Mississippi 4th graders and 22 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Only 26 percent of 4th graders and 20 percent of 8th graders tested proficient in reading.

Mississippi’s woeful performance on this and other tests underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Too many public schools in Mississippi are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives. Parents should be allowed to choose the schools their children attend and should not be penalized financially if that choice is a private religious or secular school.

“Private schools know about school choice, are interested in participating in a larger program, and have the capacity to serve students tomorrow,” said survey author Brett Kittredge. “It is clear that when the legislature expands school choice, many more students will benefit immediately.”

For these reasons, legislators in Mississippi should seriously consider the expansion of the state’s school choice programs far beyond their current scope.

The following documents provide more information about education savings accounts and private school choice.

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.

Mississippi Statewide School Choice Survey
According to this poll of 800 likely voters by Empower Mississippi, 78 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.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details the vast body of research on educational choice programs, determining school choice improves 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.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal educational savings account (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.

2016/17 School Choice Report Card
This report card published by the American Federation for Children scores 27 active non-special-needs voucher, scholarship tax-credit, and education savings account programs against ideal standards for program quality. The report is an excellent tool policymakers and researchers can use to help improve education programs and maximize student participation. 

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 Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.


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.

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