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Mississippi Passes New School Choice Program for Students with Special Needs

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By Karla Scoon-Reid. Cross-posted from the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.

A new law gives Mississippi parents of special needs students state funding to spend on their children's education, including private school tuition.

Mississippi becomes the third state in the nation, behind Arizona and Florida, to create an education savings account program, or ESA, for special needs students. Education Week's Arianna Prothero recently wrote that proponents of ESAs say the accounts give parents near total control over their children's education, signaling a new evolution in school choice. However, detractors liken ESAs to school voucher programs, which they say drain funding away from public schools and lack accountability.

Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, signed the state's education savings account bill into law Thursday. The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act establishes a pilot program that would provide $6,500 to the families of up to 500 students with disabilities. In addition to private school tuition, the funds can be used for tutoring and therapy.

Unlike two separate voucher laws in Mississippi that deal specifically with dyslexic students and students with speech and language disorders, the new ESA does not require students to fall into a certain disability category or grade level to participate. According to a press release from the governor's office, the first 250 scholarships will be available on a first-come, first-served basis starting with the 2015-16 school year, while the remaining scholarships will be awarded by lottery. 

Bryant signed the law with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a likely Republican candidate for president, at his side. The Tallahassee, Fla.-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Bush founded, has supported the bill. In a press release, Bush praised Bryant and said that Mississippi would become "a national leader in helping students with unique learning abilities achieve their God-given potential."

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