Jackson, Miss– A recent meeting of the House Education Committee with Superintendent of Education Carey Wright generated discussion regarding enrollment numbers in the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program.
The legislature funded 425 scholarships for the 2016-2017 school year and all those are filled, including an additional 213 students who are on a waiting list for a spot in the program, according to Empower Mississippi. That’s up 70 percent from ESA’s previous enrollment of 251.
“However, just 274 of the ESA students enrolled this year have applied for reimbursement from the Department of Education. This means that while there is a waiting list to get into the program, 151 students who were accepted are not using it,” said Grant Callen of Empower Mississippi in a statement.
Called added that since the meeting, it has been discovered that only three ESA students filed for the reimbursements and then returned to the public school system.
“Meaning, it is likely that only three students actually used the ESA to attend a private school and then decided the public school was a better fit,” said Callen. “On this point, the program is working exactly as we believe it should. We want every family to be able to shop around for the best educational setting for their child and to adjust – mid-year if necessary – to find the right fit.”
Callen added that there have been students who have been accepted into the ESA program that have taken no further action–such as reimbursement requests, changing schools, etc.
“Obviously, we do not want families tying up a scholarship spot if they do not intend to use it,” said Callen.
Empower Mississippi is making recommendations to the legislature for changes that could streamline the program, which were released in a statement:
The application window should be moved up in the year to allow families more time to apply to private schools once they are notified of their acceptance in the program. Last year, the students who won an ESA spot in the lottery did not find out until mid-July, less than one month before most schools began. For most, this was not adequate time to select a private school, apply, and enroll.
We suggest requiring students who have received an ESA spot to notify the Mississippi Department of Education by the time school starts whether they intend to use the scholarship or not. If they decide not to use the spot, it could be given to another student on the waiting list.
We encourage the legislature – as revenues allow – to fund the program at the level proscribed by the law, which would have been 1,000 slots this year. Had this occurred, there would not have been a waiting list and therefore students would not be impacted by other students who chose not to utilize the ESA.
Callen said that there is still work to be done in areas of the state where students with special needs still do not have options for their education, even in the private school system.
“We expected that this ESA program would help stimulate private schools to expand their services for students with special needs and in some cases new schools to be created where demand exists,” Callen said. “Both of these situations are occurring, but creating and expanding services takes time and unfortunately, there is not yet sufficient supply to meet the demand.”
Empower Mississippi released a report on families who were actively enrolled in the ESA program and found they were overwhelmingly satisfied with both the program and the new school their child was attending.
“Ninety-eight percent of families surveyed said they were satisfied with their child’s new school, compared to just 24 percent who were satisfied with their child’s previous school,” Callen said. “Moreover, most were extremely satisfied with the administration of the program. Eighty-nine percent said the application process was easy and 81 percent said it was easy to receive funds.”