This week at a meeting of the House Education Committee, Superintendent of Education Carey Wright gave a progress report on the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program. Her remarks generated some questions about the enrollment numbers.
The legislature funded 425 scholarships for the 2016-2017 school year and all those are filled, including an additional 213 students who are on a waiting list for a spot in the program. Compared to 251 students enrolled in the program last year, this is strong growth of 70 percent.
However, just 274 of the ESA students enrolled this year have applied for reimbursement from the Department of Education. This means that while there is a waiting list to get into the program, 151 students who were accepted are not using it.
Since that committee meeting, we have learned that only three (3) ESA students that filed reimbursements then opted to re-enroll in public school. Meaning, it is likely that only three students actually used the ESA to attend a private school and then decided the public school was a better fit. On this point, the program is working exactly as we believe it should.
We want every family to be able to shop around for the best educational setting for their child and to adjust – mid-year if necessary – to find the right fit.
However, there appears to be a number of students who have been accepted into the ESA program that never filed reimbursement requests, never enrolled in private school, and likely never left public school. They applied for the program, were accepted, but are not using it. Obviously, we do not want families tying up a scholarship spot if they do not intend to use it.
We recommend a few adjustments to the program to help streamline the process:
- The application window should be moved up in the year to allow families more time to apply to private schools once they are notified of their acceptance in the program. Last year, the students who won an ESA spot in the lottery did not find out until mid-July, less than one month before most schools began. For most, this was not adequate time to select a private school, apply, and enroll.
- We suggest requiring students who have received an ESA spot to notify the Mississippi Department of Education by the time school starts whether they intend to use the scholarship or not. If they decide not to use the spot, it could be given to another student on the waiting list.
- We encourage the legislature – as revenues allow – to fund the program at the level prescribed by the law, which would have been 1,000 slots this year. Had this occurred, there would not have been a waiting list and therefore students would not be impacted by other students who chose not to utilize the ESA.
Additionally, we recognize that there are still areas of the state where excellent services for students with special needs are not yet available, even in private schools. We expected that this ESA program would help stimulate private schools to expand their services for students with special needs and in some cases new schools to be created where demand exists. Both of these situations are occurring, but creating and expanding services takes time and unfortunately, there is not yet sufficient supply to meet the demand.
As a reminder, in December, we released a report on families who were actively enrolled in the ESA program and found they were overwhelmingly satisfied with both the program and the new school their child was attending. Ninety-eight percent of families surveyed said they were satisfied with their child’s new school, compared to just 24 percent who were satisfied with their child’s previous school.
Moreover, most were extremely satisfied with the administration of the program. Eighty-nine percent said the application process was easy and 81 percent said it was easy to receive funds.
For the families using the ESA program, it is working and changing lives. We will continue to work with other stakeholders to ensure that the program continues to fulfill its mission of providing a new educational opportunity to families in Mississippi.
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