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School Choice in Mississippi: Limited Vouchers

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On Sunday, I wrote about my recent interest in the issue of school choice in my home state of Mississippi based on the latest education rankings that give my state an "F" in student achievement and a "D" in chance for student success, and the fact that Jan. 26 - Feb. l was National School Choice Week. A product of the public school system in Mississippi, I'm cautious to wade in the waters of the school choice debate, but I also think major changes are needed to give students a better shot at achievement and success. Is wider school choice an Mississippi the answer?

Compared to other states, Mississippi has pretty limited school choice options. When I was growing up in Mississippi, there were really just two options when it came to picking/choosing schools: the neighborhood public school in your district or an expensive private school that likely did not provide transportation options. When researching how school choice has changed since my own K-12 days, I found that not a whole lot has changed in that regard, despite the prevalence of expanded school choice programs in many other southern states like Florida and Texas.

In my last post, I explored interdistrict public school choice (and how limiting it really is as it currently stands) and today I'm going to look at the voucher programs that exist in the state. Unlike other states where parents who choose to send their kids to private, faith-based or independent, schools can apply for a voucher to help offset the cost, Mississippi has very limited voucher programs that must be used for specific needs. An example is the Mississippi Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship for Students with Dyslexia Program that was established in 2012. Under this legislation, students who suffer the developmental reading disorder can be granted voucher, or really scholarship, funds to attend a private school if that school can provide better attention to the issue. So far, just 71 students have taken advantage of the program, which is barely a ripple in the 81 percent of Mississippi 8th graders who are not grade-level proficient in reading.

The (one) other voucher program in Mississippi is the Nate Rogers Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program. Launched just last year, it allows speech-language impaired students a voucher of up to $5,104 to attend a private school that MUST have speech-language therapy. Students must be in grades K-6 and have been officially diagnosed with speech development issues to take advantage of the program. There are no official numbers yet on just how many students are taking advantage of this voucher program but my guess is that it will be similar to the dyslexia program - a small amount in the grand scheme of things.

I'd go on about the other voucher programs in the state, but there is nothing to say since this is the entire list. There are no "average" student voucher programs or tax-credit options, which allow taxpayers to receive full or partial credit to send kids to a private school or an alternative public school. Unless a student is diagnosed with dyslexia or speech-language impairments, school choice through vouchers does not exist for families.

I wonder what an expanded voucher program would look like in my home state. If parents were not limited by income, a larger obstacle in Mississippi than other states, when choosing the right schools for their kids, what choices would they make? Would it make a difference in student scores in 5 years - or 10? Or would the underlying issues of poverty, single-parent families and a less-than-enthusiastic cultural view towards education undercut any voucher program efforts?

I'm interested to hear from educators in other states that use voucher programs on a wider scale than Mississippi. What has your experience been?

Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.