While snow shut down much of the federal government on Thursday, the Mississippi legislature was busy expanding educational opportunities for children with special needs.
Both the Magnolia State’s house and senate adopted slightly different versions of the Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act, which would create an education savings account (ESA) program similar to Arizona’s. The Friedman Foundation estimates that 11 percent of Mississippi students would be eligible for about $6,100 annually. The funds would be disbursed quarterly and families could use them for a variety of educational purposes, including private-school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, homeschool materials, online learning, and educational therapy.
ESA programs have two major advantages over traditional school vouchers. First, they allow for greater customization of education. Whereas vouchers are restricted to private school tuition, ESAs allow parents to choose from a menu of different options to tailor their child’s education to meet their individual needs.
Second, since unused funds roll over from year to year, there’s an incentive for parents to be price-conscious. Whatever remains after high school can be used for higher education or it reverts back to the state. By contrast, traditional school vouchers must be spent in their entirety each year. If more widely used, that could drive tuition inflation, much like Pell Grants do.
Parents participating in Arizona’s ESA program report extraordinarily high levels of satisfaction (universal in the survey sample). While most of the participating families use some or all of the funds for private-school tuition, about one-third of ESA families are customizing their child’s education. As shown in the video below, this freedom can be transformational for students, especially those who thrive better outside the traditional district-school environment.
As I discussed at a recent Heritage Foundation panel, ESAs share two potential downsides with traditional vouchers because they utilize public money. That makes them more susceptible to legal challenge than scholarship tax credit (STC) programs, which rely on private funding. Additionally, publicly funded programs are more likely to be over-regulated than STC programs. That said, it is possible to avoid these issues by designing an ESA program that is funded by tax credits instead.
Similar legislation is currently under consideration in Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
— Jason Bedrick is an education-policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.