In this episode of our Choice in the States series, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick chats with Grant Callen of Empower Mississippi. They discuss expanding the state’s programs beyond special needs, the future of school choice and more.
Jason Bedrick: Welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is a part of our EdChoice state policy series. I’m Jason Bedrick, the director of policy at EdChoice, and today we’re going to be talking about school choice in Mississippi with Grant Callen, the founder and president of Empower Mississippi. Grant, thanks for coming on the show.
Grant Callen: Delighted to be here. Thanks, Jason.
Jason Bedrick: So, Grant, Mississippi is one of the few states that not only has a school choice program, but actually has more than one school choice program. There are currently three programs, and I should really say educational choice, given that one of them is an education savings account. You have three programs in your state, the first of them, the Mississippi Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship, was enacted and launched in 2012. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is, how it works, and how many students are participating?
Grant Callen: Sure thing. So, this program, as you mentioned, was enacted in 2012, and really, it was enacted pretty quietly. I mean, there was no fanfare, it got almost no media. This was really before the education choice movement was really up and had taken off in Mississippi. And so this was a year, I guess a year and a half before Empower Mississippi was founded, and so, we were not involved, and it just kind of passed under the radar. But it started because a legislator named Carolyn Crawford from the coast, who’s a special needs mom, saw the need for this to happen, and she, working with some other special needs families, worked to get this done. And it certainly isn’t the way we would have designed it if we had been involved, but it’s certainly been helping a number of students.
So, the way it works is, if you are a child that has been diagnosed with dyslexia, then there’s a couple of provisions, so you have to have been screened. Originally, you had to be a student K–6, and it’s since been expanded to K–12, but it really was created in partnership with a couple of specific private schools in mind, that would meet this very narrow definition of what you have to be an eligible school. So, students receive approximately, $4,985 is the voucher amount, and that’s basically the state portion of what that child would have received in a traditional public school. There’s only a few schools in the state participating. I think there’s six, last time we checked, but there’s about 252 students total using it. And there’ve been efforts to expand it, and we can talk about that a little bit if you’re interested.
Jason Bedrick: So, there’s been tremendous growth in this program, right? I mean it’s more than, between five and 10 times, but that’s not as impressive when you realize that there were only 32 kids participating in the program in the year that it launched, and now it’s up to 252, and only 3 percent of children in the state are actually even eligible. So, it’s definitely a great program for those kids who are able to participate, and certainly is helping to meet the needs of children from a very vulnerable population, but it’s a very narrow program. So, the state came the following year and launched what appeared to be a broader program, and that’s the Nate Rogers Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. Can you tell us a little bit about who qualifies for that program?
Grant Callen: Sure. That program is similar to the Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship Program, but if you can imagine, even more restrictive and narrowly defined, both on the student eligibility side and the school side. So, to be eligible for this, you have to be diagnosed with a speech language disability, but if that is not your primary or most significant disability, you don’t qualify, which is just baffling.
Jason Bedrick: Right. So it’s speech language, so it doesn’t have to be dyslexia, so it technically includes more children than just those who have dyslexia, but there’s that caveat that you mentioned.
Grant Callen: Right. It’s really for those with a speech impairment, but that has to be the primary disability. But if you’re already in a school, a private school that would meet the needs and that would qualify for this program, you’re not eligible. So, you have to be a switcher, coming from public school to a school that meets this very narrow definition. And the average voucher amount is, like the Dyslexia Therapy, it’s $4,985. Last we checked, there’s only one student in this program. In fact, there was 14 students back in 2015, and then one or zero the next three years. And I think there’s one in 2018-2019 school year, and it’s just so restrictive on both the student side, and then the schools that are allowed to participate in it, that almost nobody is involved.
And there’s a bill that has been introduced this session to make some minor improvements that really, we didn’t even work on, and so they just got it out of committee, and it looks like it does some good and some bad, but it’s really not that consequential. So, I’m not even sure legislation this session, that we’re halfway through, is going to improve the program much.
Jason Bedrick: So, it’s called the Nate Rogers Scholarship. Is that because that is the one student who’s participating, Nate?
Grant Callen: No, it’s not. It’s because Nate Rogers was a student with special needs who passed away a few years ago, and his mother, Mandy Rogers, has been a dedicated advocate for students with disabilities in our state, and specifically, school choice options for students with disabilities. So, this was named after her son, but she’s also been real involved in our special needs ESA as well.
Jason Bedrick: Well, that’s a great segue to the third program. So, the first two programs both were enacted because there was this grassroots effort to address the needs of a particular population that often isn’t very well-served in a traditional classroom, or even necessarily, their assigned school, so they’re looking for additional options. Tell us about the Mississippi Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs education savings account program.
Grant Callen: Sure. This program is, from my view, it’s the most exciting, the most well-designed, strongest, of our three private choice program, and not just because it’s an ESA, which we certainly prefer over a state voucher, but there’s a lot of provisions in it that make it a lot more parent-friendly and student-friendly than the other program. This program was originally introduced in 2013, and didn’t get a lot of steam, but came back in 2014, and in 2014 it was introduced in the House, and at that time, our statewide newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, had done a lengthy exposé about the problems in special education within the traditional public school system here. And it uncovered, or at least sort of broadcast the news that Mississippi had a 23 percent graduation rate for students with special needs, and this newspaper which had not been particularly supportive of choice programs, said something must be done, and they spent a lot of time talking about the problem and ended up later in the legislative process, actually endorsing the special needs ESA as a good solution for this.
Sort of the way the politics rolled, there was a broad acceptance that there was a problem in special needs and something needed to be done, and this proposal, that the ESA came along at just the right time, and I think we were able to take advantage of that appetite for change and get it through. It was introduced in 2013. We came back in 2014, and started building statewide appetite for this, and it passed out of the Senate, and it got to the floor in the House and they took a vote on it. And so, we have a Republican supermajority, they don’t vote on things that they don’t have a pretty good certainty that are going to pass. And it came to the floor, and actually lost by three votes on the last day of the session, and surprised everybody because we thought we had the votes, and there was a number of reasons why it failed, but it left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.
And so, the speaker left the chamber and said, “This program is not going to come back next year, it’s an election year,” and we just ignored that. And a lot of legislators that supported the program ignored that, and we took to the people across the state, and we started hosting little round table discussions with special needs families in community after community. And we partnered with special needs organizations around the state, and the House and the Senate author of the bill, they got involved and they took sort of their agenda for this program on the road, and ultimately came back in 2015, and it was a fight, but we got it done. And it was signed into law in, I believe it was May of 2015, Governor Jeb Bush from Florida came in and did a big bill signing, with a lot of fanfare and celebrated it.
And anyway, so that program is a special needs ESA. So, eligibility is defined currently as you have to have an active IEP that has been active within the last five years. When it originally passed, you had to be active within 18 months. We came back the next year, and we were able to broaden that to five years. So, that’s fairly broad eligibility, compared to some of the other provisions and these other two school choice programs. And the real freedom comes on the school side. So it was very important to us that this program have little to no regulation, and we didn’t want private schools, parochial schools, independent schools that would be accepting students to have to change their admissions policies, or change their curriculum, or start taking tests, and so this program leaves all of that out. You basically just have to be an accredited private or independent school in the state. And actually, students in Mississippi may cross state lines, to go to a school if there is not a school within 30 miles of their house that will meet their needs.
Currently, we know there’s something like 90 different schools around the state who are serving students in the ESA program. The original value of the education scholarship account was $6,500, but we tied that amount to increases or decreases in the base student costs, so that it would go up or down based on whether we increased public education funding. And so, it is currently down just a little bit, it’s $6,494 currently, and that amount is generally, that’s above average for what a traditional private education would cost in Mississippi, but that of course doesn’t include if you need special education services on the side. So, a lot of families are using it for tuition, but then they can also use it for tutoring or therapy, or assisted technology in or outside the school day.
There are 428 students in the program right now. When it was founded, there’s a provision in the bill that says it would create 500 scholarships in year one, and it would grow by 500 every year. Well, the only funding mechanism we could get through politically, was to have it as an appropriation, just a line item appropriation, rather than part of our funding formula. And that has proved to be a real problem. So, the legislature funded it originally with a $3 million-line item in the appropriations bill, and every year they have level funded that, but they haven’t increased it. So, those original students had got a scholarship, it’s served their needs well, but there hasn’t been new scholarships created every year to serve additional students. So, the demand is growing, and there’s a wait list of hundreds of families who want to get into the program, but the funding hasn’t kept up with demand, and so there’s a lot of families that have been accepted into the program, but are on a wait list, waiting on a scholarship because the funding hasn’t kept up.
Jason Bedrick: So, technically, 19 percent of children in Mississippi are eligible, but practically speaking, because of the funding constraints, you’ve only got a few hundred, and then a whole bunch that are on the wait list.
Grant Callen: That’s right, that’s right. And so there’s been a really coordinated effort this year to make some improvements to the program that would fix the funding mechanism, that would allow funds in the ESA accounts to roll over every year. Currently, that money just goes back to the general fund, it doesn’t stay in the student accounts if you don’t use it. There’s just a number of provisions that we’ve been working to improve, and it looks like we just passed the committee deadline for bills to get out of committee this week, and it looks like most of those bills are not going to survive. However, one of the provisions we were most concerned about is in the original bill, it had a five-year sunset provision on the entire program, and that was set to come up next year, and so the Senate did pass out a bill that would extend that sunset provision five more years, which is great.
We were concerned that with this being an election year in Mississippi, if the political climate changed next year, and that’s certainly possible because every legislator’s on the ballot, governor, lieutenant governor, speaker, all on the ballot. Conceivably, we would not be able to get that repealer, that sunset revision fixed next year, and the program could go away. So, we’re glad to see a bill get out of the Senate that would fix that, but that bill doesn’t do anything to help the students on the waiting list. So, our hope, it looks like the funding mechanism is… we’re not going to have a permanent fix this year, but we are optimistic that we’ll still be able to get an increase in the appropriation from… it’s currently at 3 million, and we’re hopeful we can get six or six and a half million, or even more during the appropriations process that would not only serve the students on the waiting list immediately, but hopefully free up a few spots for future demand. But that doesn’t solve the problem forever, it just moves the bar up, so more students can participate this year, but we expect there’ll be a new waiting list next year, and next year, and it’s just this continual process until you create a funding mechanism that is automated, which is what we’ve been trying to do, it just hasn’t been successful politically.
Jason Bedrick: And you said this week, so I should mention to our listeners that we’re recording this in early February. By the time they hear this, who knows when it’ll be, but if they want to stay up to date on the latest happenings in Mississippi and other states, they should listen for our monthly debrief podcast, and follow us on our blog, where we regularly update what’s going on in the states. Now, I should also note that it’s not just about helping the kids on the wait list. You had mentioned earlier that this program was widely seen as a part of the solution to the problem of children who have disabilities, that are not being well-served in their assigned schools.
The logic behind having alternatives like an ESA, is that not only are the students going to benefit directly by participating, but even those students who remain in their assigned school, benefit because the schools know that they have an exit option, and that if they’re not meeting their needs, they can leave and take their money with them. So, if you’re not funding this system, not only are you hurting all those kids who are on the wait list and their families are desperate to find a better environment for them, but you’re also not doing anything to help those kids that are stuck in a system that the local media uncovered was really failing to serve these children well. So, it’s a much bigger issue, I would say, than just the kids on the wait list.
Grant Callen: You’re exactly right, you’re exactly right. And there’s a lot of appetite amongst the general population to not only allow more students with special needs in, but to allow all students to participate. There has been a push the last couple of years to expand this program beyond students with special needs to every student in the state, specifically, every student who has been in public school in the last year. There have been measures introduced the last couple of years, and last year, we really saw the most momentum and the most progress toward that goal.
There were companion bills introduced in the House and the Senate, one in the Senate by Senator Gray Tollison, who is the chair of the education committee, and his bill would have expanded the program beyond special needs, made eligible any student who has been in public school in the last year, and it would have created a preference, not eligibility, but a preference for… first preference would go as it currently is for students with special needs, and second preference, if there’s a limited number of scholarships, it would go to students that are from low-income families, but all public school students in the state would be eligible, and so that would have been really dramatic, it would’ve helped lots of kids. It also would have increased the cap from 500 per year, to one half of 1 percent of total public school enrollment, and growing by that amount every year. So that would have been about 2,500 students in year one, and growing by 2,500 students every year.
And we know from polling, we’ve polled this repeatedly, that this program is widely popular for students with special needs, and the public supports expansion of it to a universal program. In fact, anytime we have asked in any poll, should it be just for special needs, should it be just for low income? Should it be just for those in failing school districts? Should it be… and you name any other category, the public in Mississippi supports a universal school choice program. The problem has been with legislative leaders who have chosen not to do what parents and the public are asking for.
So, the bill got out of committee last year, it came out of the Senate Education Committee, and then the lieutenant governor chose not to bring it up on the Senate floor for a variety of reasons. But we were disappointed that he didn’t choose to bring it out, and the House chose not to act on it. So, and then this year being an election year, Senator Tollison did introduce his bill again, it was a universal bill, but he chose not to bring it out of committee this year, and instead just brought that repealer bill that would end sunset provision.
So, we think there’s strong appetite for a universal program here. And it’s interesting, most of the debate in the opposition has not been about any one provision in the bill, and it hasn’t been about the scope of the expansion. So, we really don’t see that it would be any easier or less, to expand this program to a smaller category of students. So, some states have chosen to go from special needs to military families, or students from underperforming public school districts, or something like that. Honestly, we think that would create as many hurdles to passage as the universal program. Generally, both sides, both Democrats and Republicans, don’t want the state to be picking and choosing who can participate, they just want everybody to participate. So, that’s certainly our goal, and we’re going to continue working on that until we get there, and we feel confident that’s where we’re headed, it’s just a matter of when.
Jason Bedrick: On the question of the matter of when, so what do you think is likely to happen in the next few years? What direction do you think these programs are going to take? And legislatures are often a lagging indicator, do you think that they’re going to finally catch up to what a majority of Mississippians want?
Grant Callen: Well, I think so. I mean, I’m optimistic. I think, let’s talk about the dyslexia scholarship first. The most important thing that needs to happen with that, is to change the requirements on private schools. It’s so restrictive so that not only do you have to be accredited only by the department of education as a private school to participate, you have to be approved for this program, and accredited as a special purpose private school. So, for that reason, there’s only six schools in the state that qualify, even though we have dozens and dozens of schools that have a strong licensed dyslexia therapist program in their school, so that’s just a real hurdle that needs to be fixed. I think there’s appetite for it, at some point, it just hasn’t happened yet. And then I think the ultimate, the future of school choice looks like ESAs for all kids, and there is appetite for it, like we’ve talked about. It’s just a matter of when.
So, this year, we have our lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, who has been an outspoken and continual champion for school choice in Mississippi, who is running for governor, and he is the favored to win, and I think should he win, I think he will continue to champion school choice, and work to move from just a special needs ESA to an ESA that serves all kids. And so I think that’s positive, I think the public support for this is going to continue to grow. We’re seeing more and more coalition partners come on board, just this year. So, last year, let me back up a little bit. Mississippi has two Catholic dioceses. The Jackson Diocese, last year, joined our coalition and called for the expansion of ESAs to all students, and this year, the Biloxi Diocese joined them in that call for the expansion of ESAs to all students. So many of the students are being served in the current ESA program, they’re being served in Catholic schools. And so, to have both of these dioceses, and specifically the bishops, calling for the expansion of ESAs is significant.
And so, we just feel like the movement is going to take up more and more coalition partners like that standing up and saying, this is not something that’s going to hurt traditional public schools. We all want to see traditional public schools thrive. Quite the contrary, this is a program that when designed well, as this program that has been designed, it can actually help public schools improve. And the way the funding has been set up, is that only the state money follows students, and the federal money and the local money stays in the district. So, when you crunch the numbers, traditional district public schools will have more money per student left over for any student that chooses to participate in the ESA program. So, it’s a win-win for all, and it’s going to help students, and it’s going to help traditional public schools have more dollars for the students that are left for them. And we don’t certainly don’t ever imagine that every student in the state will opt out of traditional public schools. We just think this will help make traditional public school better, and make it a better option for families that want to stay.
Jason Bedrick: Well, we certainly are looking forward to seeing a win-win solution in the state of Mississippi. Grant, thank you very much for coming on the podcast today.
Grant Callen: My pleasure. Thank you.
Jason Bedrick: My guest today has been Grant Callen, founder and president of Empower Mississippi. You have been listening to EdChoice Chats. Don’t forget to follow us at our website, edchoice.org. Like and share and follow us on Twitter at EdChoice, and stay tuned for the next edition of our EdChoice state policy series.