Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant welcomes brothers Mariano, 5, second from left, and Edmundo, 2, to the signing of the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, Thursday, April 16, 2015 at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. The brothers are both autistic. The act created vouchers for some special education students. Those families could use $6,500 in tax money for private school tuition, tutoring or other services outside the public schools.

A detailed legislative report says a program designed for special-needs students to attend private schools needs more accountability from state regulators.

The Dec. 11 report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review examines Mississippi’s Education Scholarship Account program. The Legislature passed the “The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act,” in 2015, which established a program for students with special needs to receive $6,500 per year from the state to attend nonpublic schools. Families with this scholarship can pay tuition up front and be reimbursed, or have the Mississippi Department of Education, which manages the program, pay the the school directly.

The program is only for students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that has been active in the last five years. An IEP is created by school districts for the education of a student with special needs or disabilities.

Advocates of the program say the Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) give families a choice in the type of education that’s best for their children. Critics argue the program siphons state funding from the public schools into private schools that are not necessarily equipped to teach students with special needs.

Of the $9 million the state education department has allocated for the scholarship program since its inception, $4.8 million was disbursed to parents and service providers, and about $310,000 was used to pay for administration of the program. The leftover funds were returned to the state treasury, according to the report.

The Department of Education has awarded 851 ESA scholarships since the program started, the report said, either through initial applications or lotteries. Once students are awarded the scholarship, they receive it each year unless they return to public or homeschool; in those cases, students forfeit the scholarship.

The report looked at 424 students who received a scholarship in the 2017-18 school year. Of this group, more than 60 percent used the scholarship for disabilities with language and speech, health impairments such as attention deficit disorder or diabetes, and specific learning disabilities like trouble with reading comprehension. Developmentally delayed, autistic and emotionally disabled students made up about 30 percent of the total, respectively. The report also states 23.5 percent of students receiving the scholarship were black, and 59.5 percent were white; no other racial groups are specified.

The committee surveyed 630 parents and, of the 250 that responded, 91 percent said they were using the scholarships awarded to them and were satisfied.

The survey also revealed the most common reason to not participate in the ESA program was because parents said they could not find a school to meet their child’s needs, could not afford to pay tuition costs upfront and wait for reimbursement, or their child was put on a waiting list or denied admission to a school.

According to the report, the program “lacks the accountability structure needed to ensure that nonpublic schools enrolling ESA students meet statutory requirements, and that students with disabilities are receiving the services they need and progressing toward their special needs goals.”

A nonpublic school must be accredited by the state or a regional accreditation agency to participate in the program, but aside from that there are few requirements. Private and parochial schools do not need to apply to participate, and according to the report “six nonpublic schools reported to (the committee) that they were unaware they had enrolled a student with an ESA and thus were unaware of their statutory obligations.” The report also found that of the 33 schools (there are more than 33 schools serving students) surveyed for the report, 11 schools said they had no special-education staff in fiscal year 2018, and 22 schools said they received services from public schools.

Currently the law requires MDE to accept eligible applicants on a first-come-first-serve basis until 50 percent of slots are filled. After that, students are accepted through a lottery. The report recommends that the Department of Education prioritize students on the waiting list with active Individualized Education Programs, rather than choosing randomly from all eligible applicants. The report also recommends that the Legislature consider removing the lottery component from the law and change how students on the waiting list are prioritized. It also suggests MDE move to an online system for the application and reimbursement process, because currently the process must be completed through the mail or in person.

In a statement Tuesday, Grant Callen, the president of advocacy group Empower Mississippi, which supported the creation of the scholarships, said the organization will review the recommendations and urge legislators to “take advantage of opportunities to improve the program for the sake of hundreds of Mississippi families.”

“This report confirms that the ESA program is popular, meeting needs, and providing hope to parents and students all over the state,” Callen said.

Earlier this month, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, told reporters the House does not intend to take up legislation related to the program in the upcoming legislative session.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.