Research & Commentary: Test Scores Show Mississippi Needs School Choice

Published August 22, 2018

The latest results of the annual Mississippi Academic Assessment Program statewide test show only 40 percent of Magnolia State students in grades 3–8 and in high school are testing to proficiency in English language arts (ELA), while just 44 percent are testing to proficiency in mathematics. These scores represent an increase from 2017, but grades 5 and 6 saw their ELA scores drop, as did English II scores for high school students. Also, the gap in proficiency scores between white and black students increased in math and ELA. Only 25 percent of black students tested to proficient in ELA, with just 27.9 percent testing to proficiency in math.

While the increase in test scores overall is welcome, it still shows Mississippi public schools are failing to bring roughly six out every 10 of their students to proficiency. That is simply unacceptable and highlights the need for a change from the status quo. Mississippi could make such an improvement by establishing a universal education savings account (ESA) program.

With an ESA, state education funds allocated for a child are placed in a parent-controlled savings account. Parents are then able to use a state-provided, restricted-use debit card to access the funds to pay for the resources chosen for their child’s unique educational program. Normally, these ESA funds can be used to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, textbooks and curriculum, online learning programs, tutoring services, and educational therapies. 

Mississippi currently has on its books the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program, an ESA program for special-needs students. However, eligibility for this program is limited to just 13 percent of Mississippi students. Still, polling by Empower Mississippi from December 2016 has shown the program to be a rousing success with participating families, and more recent polling from earlier this year shows 82 percent of Magnolia State voters support the program. Additionally, 65 percent are in favor of the program’s universal expansion.

Not only are school choice programs like ESA’s broadly popular, they are also effective. The overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence makes clear school choice offers families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires, and it does so at a lower cost while simultaneously benefitting public school students and taxpayers, decreasing school segregation, and improving civic values and practices.

A 2018 report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and Mississippi State University’s Institute for Market Studies estimates 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 of Mississippi. The authors estimate the impacts of a universal program would 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.

While an attempt to pass a universal ESA failed in the Mississippi State Legislature in 2018, supporters of education freedom hope lawmakers will take a closer look at the popularity and efficacy of school choice programs in 2019, to shake up Mississippi’s mediocre public education state of affairs. The goal of public education in the Magnolia State today, as well as in the years to come, should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information about ESAs and school 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.

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.

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 moving their child from an unsafe school. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately move their child to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the school their child is currently attending is too dangerous for their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examined the effect that increased access to private schooling has on international student test scores in 52 countries around the world, finding that a 1 percentage point increase in the private share of total primary schooling enrollment would lead to moderate increases in student math, reading, and science achievement within nations.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2018 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.

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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