Mississippi lawmakers recently ended their 2014 Legislative Session and there were several positives outcomes. Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves and Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison successfully spearheaded a bill to incentivize high-performing schools with financial reward. The Literacy-Based Promotion Act, originally passed in 2013, was expanded. However, one bill was regrettably missing on the final passage list. The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act failed on the House floor by a narrow margin, 57-63.
Of all the achievement gaps we see in American education, the largest exists between disabled children and their non-disabled peers. And according to a series published earlier this year by The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), Mississippi is the nation’s biggest offender. Only 23 percent of Mississippi’s students with a disability earn a high school diploma.
Twenty. Three. Percent.
Meanwhile, 75 percent of all students in Mississippi graduate high school. That leaves an achievement gap of 52 percent, a full ten percentage points higher than Alabama, the second worst offender.
Despite all that, 63 members of the Mississippi House of Representatives decided to maintain the status quo by voting against the Special Needs Act.
What would the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act have accomplished?
In the proposed program, the parent of an eligible child would have received roughly $6,000 (in four quarterly payments) deposited into an Individualized Education Fund (IEF), which would have been administered by the Mississippi Department of Education. The parents would have been empowered to use these funds in any approved manner that best met their child’s educational needs. It’s that simple.
One parent could have used the money for a tutor who specializes in their child’s disability. Another might have put half the money towards physical therapy and half towards tuition at an approved, specialized school. Yet another might have directed some toward fees on Advanced Placement tests. If the legislation had become law, students who had historically been forgotten would now be given a real opportunity at succeeding.
But, the legislation did not become law. For at least one more year, it seems the failure of these children could remain a statistic swept under the state’s rug.
Is this just a Mississippi problem?
Unfortunately, the short answer is “no.”
Implementing the Individualized Education Fund would have immediately placed Mississippi at the head of the class nationally on this crucial, yet underdeveloped issue. Arizona is currently the only state in the nation with a program that combines disability scholarships and education savings accounts, passing their groundbreaking law in 2011. Fewer than a dozen other states—Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Ohio, Indiana, Utah, and even Mississippi (though only a limited program designed for students with Dyslexia or hearing and speech disabilities)—have at least some sort of scholarship or tax-credit program for students with disabilities. Otherwise, the national landscape is barren and stark when it comes to this corner of education policy.
So what, if anything, can we learn from the few programs already in existence? Florida was the first state to offer a lifeline to students with disabilities, creating a pilot scholarship program in 1999, which would grow into the much-celebrated McKay Scholarship Program. This program is in many ways the predecessor to Arizona’s program, offering tuition scholarships to students with disabilities, but without a savings account component. Not so coincidentally, between 2003 and 2013, Florida’s students with disabilities ranked first in the nation in achievement gains, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Arizona did not start its program until 2011, but has produced some immediate success stories. A recent poll showed 100% satisfaction among Arizona parents who have signed up.
What will happen next in Mississippi?
By all accounts, the battle in Mississippi is far from over. Despite the loss, the Special Needs Act gained a broad coalition of support over the previous year, moving from a good idea to a real, live piece of legislation. Representative Carolyn Crawford (herself a mother of a child with a learning disability) and Senator Nancy Collins sponsored the bill in their respective chambers. It also garnered support from leaders, including an endorsement from Governor Phil Bryant, ample public praise from Lt. Governor Reeves, and a “yea” vote from House Speaker Philip Gunn.
On the grassroots side, a coalition of disability advocates, think tanks, and parents of children with special needs grew in size and stature, identifying numerous parents who were willing to speak out on the issue. Hopefully this will encourage even more involvement from parents of students with disabilities, since ultimately they are the ones who will make the biggest difference with their legislators.
For a brief moment, when a strong version of the bill emerged intact from conference, it looked like fierce opposition from the education establishment intent on maintaining the status quo had been overcome. Even in defeat, the positives provide a great starting point for next year’s session.
About the author
Matt Minnick is the Regional Advocacy Associate for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He is a Teach For America alumni, joining the corps in 2007 and teaching courses in English and Public Speaking at the D.M. Therrell School of Law, Government, and Public Policy, in Atlanta, Georgia. A native Floridian, Matt attended Florida public schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade. He graduated cum laude from North Carolina State University, earning a B.A. in Media Communication with a double minor in Creative Writing and Political Science. Following his years as a teacher, Matt earned a J.D. from the Florida State University College of Law, graduating cum laude. While at Florida State, Matt won a Mock Trial championship and spent a summer working for the General Counsel of the National School Boards Association. Contact Matt at MattM@excelined.org