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With deadline approaching, ESA bill’s future is uncertain

Photo by News Mississippi

With the deadline for bills to pass out of the committee stage set for tomorrow, several bills regarding the state’s ‘Special Needs Education Scholarship Account’ program (ESA) will be watched closely. 

Created in 2015, the ESA program provides up to $6,500 for parents seeking to find a new school for their child upon receiving a special needs diagnosis from their school district. Several bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to help resolve funding issues and to create more spaces in the program, but it remains to be seen if they’ll make it to the floor for debate. 

The program has been well received, but many students remain on a waiting list. With 428 spaces in the program filled, 200 students are on the waitlist. Grant Callen, President of Empower Mississippi, says that the legislature needs to address this by funding the program properly. He says they’re not asking for an expansion, but rather a commitment to fund what is already in place. 

Related: Report: 91% of parents satisfied with ESA program

“Current law says that the program will grow by 500 students every year, so funding the program that exists is not an expansion of the program. That’s simply funding the program to comply with the new spots that are supposed to be created each year. These bills would help ensure that the students on the waiting list get served,” Callen said. 

The original legislation authorized 500 seats in the first year of the program and an additional 500 new seats each year after. This would have brought the total number of authorized seats to 2,000 for the 2018-2019 school year.

The Department of Education holds two lotteries per year to determine which students will be chosen for the ESA program. Leah Ferretti is one of those parents waiting to hear if her child will be selected for the ESA program, and during a recent ‘School Choice Rally’ at the Capitol, she called for change. 

“The level funding of this program has left hundreds of Mississippi families out in the cold. I have three dyslexic children; one who has received an ESA, one who is on the waitlist, and one who will never receive a chance to be at the table,” she said.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lt. Governor Tate Reeves were both in attendance at the rally and spoke in favor of school choice, and Governor Bryant has also publicly supported the expansion of this program.

“Send me this bill, and I will sign it. Many Mississippi children would benefit from this. Thank you to all who are making the Mississippi education system better each day,” the Governor said in a recent tweet.

With leadership at the top in favor of these bills, it’s now up to Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison and House Education Chairman Richard Bennett to get the bills out of their respective committees. Callen said that while he is unsure on the bills’ future, he says parents across the state are depending on them. 

“We just hope they will [pass],” Callen said. “It’s what parents are asking for, and it’s really up to these chairmen as to whether these parents get the legislation passed that would help them get into the program. It’s all on them and they have the power to do it.”

Funding is always a question when it comes to education in Mississippi, but Callen stated said that he believes the funds for this program are available. 

“There is going to be revenue available this year to meet the needs of this program,” he claimed. “I think opposition is purely about whether you believe in school choice, whether you believe parents with special needs students deserve to have those students’ needs met in a setting that’s right for them or whether you oppose that. There are forces at work who don’t believe students should have the ability to be educated in any setting expect a traditional public school, and we disagree with that.”

One of the bills introduced aims to allow a doctor’s diagnosis to serve as a referral for the program. As the program functions today, a student must receive an ‘Individualized Education Program’ from their school stating that he or she requires a form of special education. 

Similar measures were introduced during the 2018 session, but they failed to pass through the committee stage.

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