The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act became law in 2015, establishing Education Scholarship Accounts (ESA) vouchers. The ESA voucher program allows Mississippi parents to use state funds to pay private school tuition for children with special needs. Initially, eligibility was limited to students who had an active IEP within the past 18 months; it was later expanded to students who had an active IEP within the past five years. The Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Committee issued a highly critical report on the program in December of 2018. Senate Bill 2594, passed in the 2020 Legislative Session in part as a response to the PEER report, amended the ESA voucher program to require that private voucher schools provide special education services (previously, although purported to be a program for students with special needs, there was no requirement that special education services be provided to students using the vouchers in private schools). The bill also eliminated online schools from the program and limited eligibility to students who had an active IEP within the past three years, among other provisions. Following are key facts about the ESA voucher program, based on data from the Mississippi Department of Education and findings from the PEER report.
ESA Voucher Facts
Though the ESA voucher program is available only to children with special needs, the original ESA law did not require ESA voucher schools to provide any special education services, and most did not. In 2020, the ESA statute was amended to require that special education services be provided in private voucher schools. (Source: Mississippi PEER report)
For the 2023-2024 school year, Mississippi’s public schools receive, on average, $6,200 in state funds per student. The ESA voucher sends $6,779 per student to private voucher schools, because the assumption is that they will be providing often-costly special education services. But in the first several years of the program, the private voucher schools rarely provided special education services and when they did, the services often were implemented by the local public school district. (Sources: Mississippi Department of Education; Mississippi PEER report)
Because federal law requires school districts to spend a portion of their federal funds serving special education students in private schools, most of the private voucher schools use the public schools to provide the limited special education services offered ESA students. This means taxpayers pay twice. You pay the voucher schools, which are pocketing the extra funds, and you pay the public schools, which are providing the services to voucher students in private schools. (Source: Mississippi PEER Report)
The Mississippi ESA Voucher program is set up to benefit private schools, not children. Just over a third of the children given vouchers have actually used them (36.5%). The voucher program has not used all of its funding in any year since the program began. (Source: Mississippi Department of Education)
The Mississippi Department of Education has devoted an inordinate amount of time and resources tracking down and reassigning unused vouchers. Still, after giving away the same vouchers again and again, the money remains unspent. Parents reported that they couldn’t use the vouchers because their children are denied admission to private schools, they are not able to find a private school that meets their children’s needs, or they cannot afford the tuition/fee balance at the private school. (Sources: Mississippi Department of Education, Mississippi PEER report)
Since the ESA voucher program began, the Legislature has underfunded special education in public schools by almost $200-million. In the 2021-2022 school year alone, special education was underfunded by $36-million, limiting the ability of school districts to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children. (Source: Mississippi Department of Education)