As the first national private school choice organization to work with parents and advocates in Mississippi, beginning several years ago, we are excited to share the news about their recent success.
The Mississippi legislature passed Senate Bill 2695, an education savings account (ESA) program for children with disabilities that is now headed to Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk for signature.
With his signature, Mississippi, after Arizona and Florida, will become the third state to adopt ESAs, which allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive an allowance of public funds with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, private tutoring, educational therapy, assistive technology, textbooks, online courses, transportation, and higher education expenses. The Mississippi Board of Education may contract with a qualified nonprofit to administer the program.
Today the Mississippi Senate concurred with amendments by the House and on a concurrence vote, passed SB 2695, the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Collins (R) with bipartisan support. The sections below represent the key parameters of this ESA proposal.
The Mississippi Department of Education or designated nonprofit will disburse payments to participating nonpublic schools and providers after verification of an eligible student’s admission and participation, or to parents as a reimbursement for eligible expenses incurred. Each student’s ESA will be funded at $6,500 annually, subject to increase or decrease by the same proportion as the base student cost of education funding.
No funds from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and no funds from any school district will be required to fund ESAs. Parents are free to use additional, private funds to supplement an ESA.
This opportunity is limited to 500 students in year one, with an additional 500 students added to the program each year during a “pilot” period of five years.
The department of education may accept additional contributions from private or other public sources to fund ESAs for participating students.
If Gov. Bryant signs this bill into law, more than 64,000 students in Mississippi will be eligible for an ESA, although this opportunity is limited to 500 students in year one, with an additional 500 students added to the program each year during a “pilot” period of five years.
To qualify, students must have had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at some point within the past 18 months. Students currently attending private schools may be eligible, although there is a preference for students with current IEPs in public schools should there be a need for a lottery. Students may not access Mississippi’s Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship or the Speech-Language Therapy Scholarship while participating in the ESA program. Eligible students are automatically approved for participation for the following year. The department of education will begin accepting applications July 1, 2015.
REGULATIONS ON PROVIDERS
The legislation requires participating schools to:
- be accredited by, or hold a provisional letter of accreditation from, a state or regional accrediting agency (excluding a home instruction program—that is, the program excludes homeschoolers, but not the purchase of online, home-based courses),
- comply with health and safety laws that apply to nonpublic schools,
- hold a valid occupancy permit if required by their municipality,
- offer students the option of taking a nationally standardized norm-referenced achievement test,
- comply with nondiscrimination policies in 42 USC § 1981,
- provide parents of prospective students details of the school’s programs, qualifications, experience, and capacity to serve students with disabilities,
- have no record of fraud or abuse,
- exclude from employment anyone not permitted by state law to work in a nonpublic school or who might pose a threat to the safety of students, and
- conduct criminal background checks on employees.
The legislation affirms that the department of education shall not regulate the educational program of a nonpublic school or service provider under the program; that the regulatory power of the state is not expanded as a consequence of this program. Nonpublic schools remain autonomous; they are not agents of state or federal governments.
Now Mississippi’s ESA bill will head to Gov. Phil Bryant (R) for signature, who has signed two private school choice voucher measures into law in the past three years.
UPDATE – December 10, 2015
On April 16, 2015, Mississippi’s Gov. Phil Bryant signed this new ESA program into law. For the most up-to-date information on this program, including its rules, regulation, and participation, click here.