A chance for Mississippi to get out of the educational basement

Which state ranks last of the fifty in fourth-grade math on the NAEP, last in eighth-grade reading on the NAEP, last in Education Week’s Quality Counts report, and last in readiness for science and engineering?

If you guessed Mississippi each time, either you’re up on your education stats or you read the title of the post and went for broke. I don't mean to pick on Mississippians, but it's clear that leaders there need to make some dramatic changes in order to provide a better educational and economic future for their constituents.

In 1999, Governor Jeb Bush led Florida on a journey to improve educational excellence by focusing on third-grade reading, accountability, choice, and other reforms. As a result, it is far better to be a public-school student in Florida today than it was before those reforms were enacted. The Sunshine State’s story shows the power of innovation and the necessity of federalism in public policy. Many of Florida's changes had not been tried in states before but are now being replicated all over the place. Without bold leadership and the freedom to innovate, Florida would likely still be stuck in neutral. Here’s hoping that nearby Mississippi can both replicate some of those successes and also challenge other states to keep up by enacting some of its own innovations.

While far more than any one reform is needed to ensure such improvement, the Magnolia State may find hope in a policy that has been hardly tried before. In fact, Mississippi has the chance to be just the second state, after Arizona, to enact an education savings account (ESA) program.

As with the Arizona ESA program, parents would be allowed dramatically greater flexibility to control their child's education. Each year, funds (estimated by the Friedman Foundation to be around $6,100) would be deposited into an account for each participating child, which can be used for a wide range of activities, such as online courses, tutoring, or even horseback riding. Any unspent funds can be carried over into a college savings account, which encourages parents be smart with their money—and keeps educational providers from inflating their prices.

Bills sponsored by Nancy Adams Collins in the Mississippi Senate and Carolyn Crawford in the House call for the creation of ESAs for a limited number of students with special needs (500 in the House version and 2,500 in the Senate version). The plan has passed both houses, and now leaders must rectify the differences between the two.

Let’s be clear, the ESA idea is all but untested, and I have my own reservations—for instance, how will the state hold all of these disparate providers accountable? The legislature has been wise to propose a pilot program, which should tamper down the (political, if nothing else) risks of trying something new. They can use that opportunity to hear from early-adopting parents about what works and what doesn't. It's possible (though unlikely) that the idea could be a flop. But even if it is, leaders in Mississippi deserve credit for recognizing the need for dramatic change and contemplating a forward-thinking solution.

If this experiment fails, the state should try as many others as they need until they find solutions that work. But they may yet strike gold and, along with Arizona, help shepherd education reform into a new era. I’m not sure what will happen—no one is. But for the sake of every child living in America's worst state for education, I do hope we get a chance to find out.

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