Almost Surrounded

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Last week, Louisiana passed a bill that will allow all students to qualify for an Education Savings Account (ESA). An ESA is a taxpayer-funded account that can be used for educational expenses as directed by a student’s parents. ESA funds can be used to pay for things like private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, educational therapies for special needs students, online courses, and other approved educational products and services. In a few states, ESAs can be used, to a limited extent, for homeschooling costs or transportation.   

During the 2024 legislative session, a bill was introduced that would have created a similar program in Mississippi. House Bill 1449 would have established Magnolia Scholarship Accounts, an ESA-type program, for which all students would have been eligible by the 2027-2028 school year. That bill was amended in the House Education Committee to instead create a committee to study the issue but later died before considered by the full House of Representatives.   

With the passage of the LA Gator program, Louisiana becomes the 12th state to enact a private school choice program that allows all students to participate. Arkansas passed a similar bill in 2023, and Alabama joined the growing list of states earlier this year. Other states with universal private school choice programs include Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia. Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently suggested that Texas will soon join this list too, with several legislators who oppose school choice having been replaced by voters in recent Republican primaries.  Tennessee has an ESA program that is not universal, but it is broader than Mississippi’s. 

Mississippi is now nearly completely surrounded by states that have embraced education freedom for all students. Why is this important? Because it directly impacts our ability to compete with those states for both business and migration.  

Imagine a relatively small Mississippi town in which the local public school is underperforming. Students in this community could spend $5,000-6,000 per year to attend a local private school instead, but many families can’t afford to do so. With an ESA, that community could attract more middle-class families (and by extension more businesses) because parents wouldn’t be forced to choose between the high cost of private school or an underperforming public school. Low-income families who can’t afford to move to another school district would then have more educational options in that community, too.  

Parents want to live where they can choose where they send their kids to school. Many already choose to move to “good” public school districts if they are financially able to do so. Those who can’t are generally stuck with their residentially assigned public school, even if that school isn’t the best fit for them.  

Notably, private school choice programs don’t have a detrimental effect on local public schools, as some fear. Research shows that ESAs and similar-type programs actually improve academic outcomes at public schools near them. Of the 30+ states that have enacted a private school choice program, none has ever repealed such a program.  

ESA programs are a win-win. They are great for students, both those who participate in such programs and those who do not. They often cost the state less than educating a student in public school, and they lead to improved public school performance.  

This is not about pitting public schools against private schools. It’s about making sure students have as many opportunities to succeed as possible, regardless of which path they choose. ESAs make it possible for families to choose an option other than their residentially assigned public school, if that’s what their child needs, and create additional opportunities for success.  

In the end, I believe we should all want this for our students.  

As states across America, particularly the Southeast, choose to empower their students to succeed, Mississippi should follow suit. It’s time to embrace true education freedom in the Magnolia State.