Research & Commentary: Mississippians Eager for Universal Expansion of ESA Program

Published January 4, 2018

A new poll from Empower Mississippi, a nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission is to improve educational choice in the Magnolia State, shows 65 percent of Mississippians support expanding the state’s education savings account (ESA) program for students with special needs 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 supported the expansion of the ESA program. 

The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program was launched in the fall of 2015. Thirteen percent of Mississippi K–12 students are currently eligible. There were 21 participating schools and 204 students in the program’s second year of operation in 2016– 17. Enrollment for 2015-16 was limited to just 500 students, with only 500 additional students allowed to enroll in each subsequent year.

In addition, the enrollment increase has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in program funding, so there were only 425 total scholarships available for 2016-17, less than half of what the law allows for. All 425 scholarships will be awarded because the program is so popular that the Mississippi Department of Education had to hold a lottery for the final 175 available scholarships. While 13 percent of Mississippi students are eligible for the program, less than 1 percent participate in it.

Another Empower Mississippi report, released in August 2017, 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 the ESA program were expanded. The report also contained a survey of private schools across the state, finding 64 percent would likely participate in an expanded ESA program if it were made available. Only nine percent of respondents answered they would not be likely to participate.

So far, ESAs appear to be very popular with the Mississippi parents with access to them. 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.

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.

Both Mississippi private schools and Mississippi families are ready for a universal expansion of the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program. Legislators in Mississippi should seriously consider expanding the state’s school choice programs far beyond their current scope.

The following documents provide more information about education savings accounts.

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.

2017 Schooling in America: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent Experiences, School Choice, and the Role of the Federal Government
This annual EdChoice survey, 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 Statewide Private School Choice on College Enrollment and Graduation: Evidence from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
This study from Urban Institute scholars Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn shows Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program boosted college enrollment for participating students by 15 percent, with students enrolled in the program for four or more years seeing a 46 percent hike.

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.

Recalibrating Accountability: Education Savings Accounts as Vehicles of Choice and Innovation
This Special Report from The Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation explores how education savings accounts expand educational opportunities and hold education providers directly accountable to parents. The report also identifies several common types of regulations that can undermine the effectiveness of the program and how they can be avoided.


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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