Mississippi is closer to becoming the third state, behind Arizona and Florida, to adopt education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses.
Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, private tutoring, educational therapy, assistive technology, and higher education expenses. The Mississippi Board of Education will contract with a qualified nonprofit to administer the program.
Today the Mississippi Senate passed SB2695, 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.
Funds will be distributed through a debit card issued by the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration. Each student’s ESA will be funded at $7,000 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.
The nonprofit administering the program may accept additional contributions from private or other public sources to fund ESAs for participating students.
If passed into law this year, 63,000 students in Mississippi will be eligible for an ESA. To qualify, students must have had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) within the past 18 months. Students may not access the Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship or the Speech-Language Therapy Scholarship while participating in the ESA program.
REGULATIONS ON PROVIDERS
The legislation requires participating schools to
- 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.
A similar ESA proposal is being considered in the Mississippi House of Representatives. This post will be updated based on action, or non-action, taken by either legislative chamber. Should an ESA plan pass both chambers, it will head to Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who, in the past two years, has signed two private school choice voucher measures into law.
UPDATE – December 10, 2015
Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act into law on April 16, 2015. For a full breakdown of the bill, check out our follow-up blog post here. For the most up-to-date information on this program, click here. More detailed history of this bill can be found here and here.