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New Choice Program in Mississippi Targets Children With Dyslexia

A new Mississippi law gives children with dyslexia the option of using vouchers to attend private schools, or another public school, if the schools have dyslexia-specific instruction.

The law, which takes effect next week, was championed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who has said he struggled with dyslexia as a child.

The legislation would apply to students in 1st through 6th grades. Eligible schools would have to employ dyslexia therapists. A related law also passed this year creates scholarships for college students planning to work as dyslexia therapists.

Beyond giving students with dyslexia choices about which school to attend, the new law will require universal screening of children in kindergarten and first grade for the learning disability.

The Clarion-Ledger reported last month that the International Dyslexia Association predicts that 10 to 20 percent of the population at large suffers from dyslexia. One rough estimate by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice finds that as many as 20,000 to 25,000 Mississippi students could be eligible for the choice program.

The new law says eligible schools would have to provide dyslexia therapy, which is defined as a specialized dyslexia instructional program provided by a dyslexia therapist licensed by the Mississippi Department of Education. The dyslexia therapy must be scientific, research-based, Orton-Gillingham based, and offered in a small group setting to teach students the components of reading instruction. Those components include phonemic awareness, phonics, and strategies for decoding, encoding, word recognition, fluency, and comprehension.

Mississippi joins a number of states that have created voucher programs specifically for students with disabilities. Unlike other types of vouchers, these are less likely to face legal challenges, although one in Oklahoma is headed to the state's Supreme Court.

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