Standing Ready for School Choice

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · April 16, 2015

Arlington, Va.—Today, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act. The Act creates a pilot program that, in its first year, will allow up to 500 students with special needs to receive a publicly funded education savings account that can be used to tailor a student’s educational program to his or her unique needs. Families participating in the program would be awarded approximately $6500, which they can spend on a wide variety of educational goods and services, including, but not limited to, tutoring services, homeschool materials and curriculum, special education therapies, private school tuition, and textbooks.

“With Governor Bryant’s signature, Mississippi joins Arizona and Florida as the third state in the nation to create this type of education savings account program,” declared Dick Komer, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, the nation’s leading law firm defending educational choice programs. “As with all well-designed educational choice programs, Mississippi’s new education savings account program is constitutional because it benefits families and not private schools.”
Some state legislators and special interest groups argued, however, that the program is unconstitutional because one of the many options parents have under the new program is to enroll their children in private religious schools and use the funds deposited in the account to pay tuition to religious schools. But the Mississippi Supreme Court has held for over 70 years that programs that assist students who choose to attend private and religious schools are perfectly consistent with the State Constitution.

In the 1941 case of Chance v. Mississippi State Textbook Rating & Purchasing Board, the State Supreme Court upheld a program than loaned textbooks to students in religious schools stating that the children receiving the textbooks must be viewed as the beneficiaries of the program, not the private or religious schools they chose to attend.

Far from being a program that benefits private schools, the new act is a response to a genuine crisis in the Mississippi public education system. The state’s public schools are currently failing to provide students with special needs the opportunity to graduate with a real diploma and to prepare those students for college, a career, and a successful life.

“Mississippi’s education savings account program has been carefully crafted not only to give children with special needs expanded educational options, but to conform to the requirements of the Mississippi Constitution,” said Tim Keller, the Managing Attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Arizona Office. Keller helped draft Arizona’s similar program. “If the Act is challenged in court, the Institute for Justice is prepared to intervene in any such case on behalf of the parents and students who will benefit from this program and vigorously defend the program’s constitutionality.”