Time to expand education scholarship program to provide school choice for all students


Mississippians want high quality education opportunities for their children and grandchildren. In recent years, our Legislature has made huge strides toward that transformative goal. We are encouraged that House and Senate leaders plan to build on this momentum by introducing legislation in the upcoming session to expand an education scholarship account program that is already working for hundreds of students across Mississippi.

Students like Lanna Beard deserve a chance. Lanna was adopted as an infant. Diagnosed with visual perception disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome, Lanna struggled in school. Even though her family lived in the highly rated Rankin County School District, the school was not able to meet Lanna’s individual needs. Desperate to give their daughter her best opportunity, Lanna’s family visited New Summit School and loved what it offered her. Unfortunately, the tuition was more than the Beards could afford.

Thankfully, Lanna’s story does not end in defeat. Today, Lanna is thriving at New Summit — something that did not seem possible just a couple years ago. And she is not alone. Two common sense reforms in Mississippi are helping families you see at church, at the store, and at the ball field.

The Special Needs ESA program has received rave reviews from families enrolled in the program. In fact, a survey of families in the program found that over 90 percent are satisfied. For comparison, just 24 percent were satisfied with their child’s school before entering the program.

Both the Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship and the Special Needs ESA were built on the recognition that each child has unique gifts and needs and parents need freedom to find an educational setting that serves their children well. This is true, whether we are talking about children with special needs or the boy or girl down the street who simply hasn’t found the right learning environment to unlock their potential.

Since the passage of these game-changing scholarship programs, we have also seen two states approve ESA programs for all children. Mississippi can be on the cutting edge of this movement. Indeed, that’s what Mississippi voters want. In a 2015 poll of Mississippians, nearly 60 percent said ESAs should be available to all students.

An expanded ESA would allow more families to take control of a portion of the existing state education funding that is already spent on their children. Local taxes collected for local schools would stay put. Both schools and families could spend money more efficiently.

Research demonstrates that education choice programs like ESAs benefit all children. The vast majority of gold standard studies show greater academic achievement for both students in choice programs and those in nearby public schools. Students, families, teachers, and school leaders can thrive when education is about student success instead of the status quo.

Mississippi has made great progress in education reform in the last six years. Our leaders often don’t get enough credit for the courage they have demonstrated and the results we are seeing. 2018 has the potential to take us to the next step. We proudly stand with those who want to give more opportunities to more Mississippi families by expanding the ESA program.

There is no time to wait.

This column appeared in the Clarion Ledger on December 17, 2017.