The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act became law in 2015, establishing Education Savings Accounts (ESA) vouchers. The ESA voucher program allows 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 is under consideration in the 2020 Legislative Session. It amends the ESA voucher program to require that private voucher schools provide special education services, eliminates online schools, and limits 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.
Because the voucher program is set up to benefit private schools, not children, less than half of the children given vouchers have used them (42.2%). (Source: Mississippi Department of Education)
Though the ESA voucher program is available only to children with special needs, the ESA law does not require ESA voucher schools to provide any special education services, and most do not. (Source: Mississippi PEER report
Mississippi’s public schools receive, on average, less than $4,000 in MAEP funds for a typical student. The ESA voucher sends $6,765 per student to private voucher schools, because the assumption is that they will be providing often-costly special education services. But the private voucher schools rarely provide special education services. (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 has not used all of its funding in any year since the program began. (Sources: Mississippi Department of Education, Mississippi PEER report)
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 a total of $130-million; in the 2019-2020 school year, special education is underfunded by $28-million. (Source: Mississippi Department of Education)