Research & Commentary: Renewing Mississippi’s Special Needs ESA is a No-Brainer

Published March 13, 2020

A bill that has already passed through the Mississippi Senate would renew the state’s successful Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program, an education savings account program (ESA) for special-needs students.

Enacted in 2015, Mississippi’s ESA program had over 500 participating special needs students in 98 participating schools in the fall of 2019. The average award to each student is $6,765 for the 2019–20 school year.

Renewing this program so that hundreds of Mississippi children with special needs may benefit from its continuation should be a no-brainer for the House of Representatives. However, Mississippi legislators should look into expanding the program in 2021 and make it available to more Magnolia State families.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs finds they 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.

Research also shows students attending private schools are 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 improve the mental health of participating students.

December 2017 Empower Mississippi poll revealed 65 percent of Mississippians support expanding 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 program, 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.

Mississippi families (and private schools) 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 and education choice.

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.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

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.

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

2019 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Busing, Technology, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice reports polling results based on a nationally representative sample of the general public, with more robust samples of parents, current public school teachers, Millennials and Generation Z than in previous editions. The survey asks standard questions about schooling experiences and educational choice reforms, as well as hot-button K–12 subjects that seem to polarize lawmakers and advocates, including inter-district busing, teacher protests and children’s use of technology.

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.

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.


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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