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Mississippi to Add Third Voucher Program for Students in Special Education

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign a bill launching a pilot program that would provide state funds to students with disabilities that they can then use for educational expenses, including private school tuition, therapy, and tutoring.

State lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2695 last week. In a statement, Bryant, a Republican, said the bill's passage marked "a good day for parents in Mississippi." 

"Special needs students deserve the opportunity to succeed, and this bill gives parents the power to provide additional resources to help their children obtain the education and support they need," the statement read. 

In the state, about 23 percent of students with disabilities graduate from high school in four years with a regular diploma, compared to 75 percent of students overall.

In its first year, the bill will provide $6,500 to up to 500 students with disabilities that can be used on a variety of educational expenditures.

Multiple Voucher Options

The policy is the third such program aimed at students with disabilities to pass in the state in three years. The Mississippi Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship, enacted in 2012, allows elementary students with disabilities to enroll in private schools specializing in working with that disorder. 

Also, the Mississippi Speech-Language Therapy Scholarship, which passed in 2013, provides funds for elementary school students with speech and language disorders to enroll in specialized schools for their disability.  

A student cannot double-dip, however, and use funds both from the new program and one of the previously existing vouchers.

Students do not need to fall into a certain disability category or be in a particular grade to take advantage of the new program, which makes it broader than the voucher bills that have already passed in the state. However, the number of students who can participate in the pilot program is capped at 2,500. 

The new bill also differs from a traditional voucher in that it allows families to use the money for educational services besides private school tuition, said Richard Komer, a senior attorney at the libertarian  public-interest law firm Institute for Justice. The organization worked with supporters of the Mississippi bill. Only two other states, Arizona and Florida, currently have such programs, which are known as education savings accounts

Though tuition might be the primary use for such funds, parents can also use the money to pay for specialized supplies or therapies. "It gives much more flexibility," Komer said. 

Tennessee is also considering a similar education savings account bill for students with disabilities.

[CORRECTION (April 3) : The original version of this post said that home-schooling parents can use this educational savings account. The bill's language excludes students who are participating in a "home instruction program."]


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