School choice advocates rallied on the south steps of the state Capitol Tuesday to celebrate past legislative victories and press the legislature for further expansion.
Both Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn spoke at the rally, which was attended by school children from around the state.
“This is not about politics, but people,” Reeves said. “It’s about giving parents more options for their kids. I believe that parents know best what’s best for their kid, not some bureaucrat sitting in Jackson.
“It should not matter what a kid’s zip code is or what their mom or dad does for a living. Every kid in our state deserves a chance at success and this is about ensuring that every kid gets that opportunity.”
The Legislature has made key strides in the past seven year in furthering school choice statewide.
Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill in 2012 that created a scholarship for children with dyslexia. The next year, he signed a bill that authorized the creation of charter schools. In 2015, the state’s education scholarship program for children with special needs was signed into law by Bryant.
There are now five charter schools in the state. Only one — Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School — is outside the Jackson metro area.
Reeves said he supports expanded funding for the ESA program, which will expire in 2020. This means the Legislature will need to pass a reauthorizing bill in this session or the next to keep it alive.
Due to funding restraints, the ESA program is open to less than 500 students with special needs, and parents can use an allotted $6,637 on tuition, tutors, books and other educational aids. Many sit on a waiting list.
Cleveland mother Leah Ferretti, who has two sons with dyslexia, spoke at the rally and asked attendees if they knew any program like the ESA one that has a 91 percent parent satisfaction rating in the PEER report.
“The door is closing on our babies in 2020 unless the repealer is removed,” Ferretti said. “Our program needs a new funding mechanism so it can meet the growth and the need we are desperately asking for.
“We’re calling on you legislators to allow every student in Mississippi the opportunity to succeed and not be confined to in an environment that is discriminatory or denies their civil rights.”
Also a recent report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) spotlighted several issues with the ESA program that could be helped with action by the Legislature.
Right now, the program’s unused funds don’t roll over from one year to the next and instead go back to the general fund. The program uses a lottery system to decide what families receive the money and PEER recommends adding prioritization for families that have been on the wait list.
Also, PEER said that the Mississippi Department of Education hasn’t administered the program as effectively as possible by prioritizing those with active individualized education program as required under law.
According to PEER, as of June 29, there were 197 students on the waiting list. Since most scholarship recipients from the year previous will continue in the program, there are only a few slots that open up for new enrollees each year. As of August, there were only 47 open slots.
In fiscal 2018, taxpayers disbursed $2,057,815 for the ESA program, with 94 percent being spent on tuition, with the rest spent on education aids such as software or textbooks.