Private School Vouchers 2020: Good, Bad and Ugly Changes to Existing Programs in Mississippi and Ohio
This is the second in our series, Private School Vouchers: Analysis of 2020 Legislative Sessions. This annual PFPS analysis provides an overview of proposed voucher legislation nationwide and deeper dives on key states and issues. Read the first part.
In 2015, the Mississippi Legislature passed an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) voucher program that provides vouchers to students with disabilities to pay for private school tuition and other private education expenses. The program was passed as a five-year pilot to test the effectiveness of vouchers in Mississippi, and was set to sunset in 2020 absent reauthorization from the State Legislature.
Leading up to and during the 2020 legislative session, advocates, including the SPLC Action Fund and the Parents’ Campaign, called attention to studies and reports on the ESA voucher program demonstrating it was unaccountable and failed to meet the needs of many students with disabilities.
Mississippi’s Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) released a 2018 review that found approximately one-third of ESA voucher funds went unused because parents could not find a private school that would admit or meet the needs of their children. It also found one-third of participating private schools had no special education staff in 2018. Similar results were documented in a December 2020 PEER report on the program. The 2018 PEER report concluded Mississippi’s voucher program “lacks the accountability structure needed to ensure that [private] schools enrolling [voucher] students meet statutory requirements and that students with disabilities are receiving the services they need and progressing toward their [special education] goals.” The 2020 PEER report documented continuing areas of concern.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office also released a report analyzing the accountability mechanisms of voucher programs across the country. Of the ESA voucher programs examined, Mississippi’s ranked among the worst for measuring academic performance, program administration, and fiscal viability.
The available studies were highlighted in a January 2020 PFPS brief on Mississippi’s ESA voucher program. The PFPS brief urged the Legislature to allow the program to expire and instead devote funding to Mississippi’s under-resourced public schools.
The Legislature ultimately renewed a narrower version of the program with several added accountability measures. The legislation, Senate Bill 2594, eliminates online and out-of-state schools from eligibility for the voucher program and requires that participating schools provide special education services for voucher students. Previously, students could receive vouchers if they had an eligible Individualized Education Program (IEP) from the past five years, but the bill shortens that timeframe to three years. The new law again includes a sunset provision, this time after four years in 2024, providing students, families, and advocates another opportunity to assess Mississippi’s voucher program and push to end this ineffective and harmful policy.
In early 2020, Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program was set to expand dramatically due to a change in the grading system for public schools. Eligibility for EdChoice private school vouchers is based on whether a student’s assigned public school meets controversial low-performance criteria. The change would have made students from hundreds more schools eligible for vouchers, increasing the number from about 500 to over 1,200 schools, more than one-third of Ohio public schools.
The State Legislature battled over competing bills to ward off or ameliorate this expansion. Ultimately, it was largely frozen by an omnibus COVID-19 bill passed in late March.
Later in 2020, the Legislature approved SB89, which altered the criteria for EdChoice vouchers beginning the following school year. Children can now apply for these vouchers if they are enrolled in a public school that was ranked in the bottom 20% of the state performance index in prior consecutive years and is operated by a district with a three-year average of at least 20% eligibility for federal Title I funding, which supports students from low-income families. SB89 also broadened eligibility for the EdChoice expansion voucher program from 200% to 250% of the federal poverty level.
A lesson public school advocates can draw from both Mississippi and Ohio is that it is well worth fighting the establishment of any private school voucher program, as they are so often a platform from which expansions are proposed and implemented. But by the same token, these additional bites at the legislative apple offer another opportunity to inform elected officials and community members about the pitfalls of vouchers and the need to keep public funds in public schools.