The Catholic Dioceses of Jackson and Biloxi rallied at the Capitol today for lawmakers to increase the number of students that receive the ESA scholarship.

In letters addressed to the legislature, the leaders of the Catholic Dioceses of Jackson and Biloxi voiced support for expanding Mississippi’s Education Scholarship Account program, which enables parents to direct their state education tax dollars to the educational setting and services of their choice.  Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz and Superintendent of Education Catherine Cook of the Diocese of Jackson urged legislators to take action in 2019.

“Our Catholic schools have been eager to serve eligible families,” their letter stated.  “About one-third of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Jackson educate students in the program.”

The letter went on to address the over 200 families currently on the ESA wait list.

“Funding has not kept pace with demand for the ESAs.  Parental power over their child’s education should not be based on random chance – please expand funding for the Equal Opportunity Program to ensure all applicants can exercise their parental rights.”

Biloxi Bishop Louis F. Kihneman, III, echoed the sentiments of Jackson officials in his letter to the legislature.

“As a Church, we believe that parents are the first and primary teachers of their children; some parents do not have the resources to educate children with special needs. Expansion of the ESA program to include more students would benefit these families as well as the State of Mississippi,” Kihneman said in his letter.  “Parents should have the opportunity to send their children to the school that best fits their needs and to obtain services that are essential to the education of their children, especially if their children are in need of extra care and attention to maximize their learning potential.”

More than half of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Biloxi participate in the ESA program.

“From the start, Catholic schools have offered an education to girls and boys of all racial, ethnic, religious, and varying economic backgrounds.  Expanding our programs for special needs students would allow another choice for parents who are burdened,” Kihneman stated in his letter.

The Catholic Dioceses of Jackson and Biloxi are not alone in this plea to expand the ESA scholarship. At Empower Mississippi’s School Choice Rally at the Capitol, one mother spoke for the enhancement of the scholarship.

“As a Mama bear…I refuse to be told that someone else knew what was best for my child,” Leah Ferretti added. “As a parent, I am the expert on my children.”

Ferretti added that there are over 200 students waiting on the ESA list. She stated that for the first two years, each year there were supposed to be 500 students approved each year.

“There are over 400 at the table,” said Ferretti, “And over 200 on the waitlist. Now I’m not a math expert, but the math doesn’t add up.”

Lt. Governor Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn also spoke at the January 22 rally.

Lt. Governor Tate Reeves copied the sentiment and added that the government should not be the sole decision maker for education.

“Parents know best, not some bureaucrat sitting in Jackson,” said Reeves.

Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn stated that while three major bills have benefitted school choice since 2012, there is more to be done that could break down the limitations of school choice being tied to simply a student’s zip code.

“I believe we ought to expand on school choice,” said Gunn. “The state’s role is to supplement those choices.”

president and founder of Empower Mississippi Grant Callen said, “Mississippi’s education system, for all its strengths, still favors the haves over the have-nots. Until all parents have a choice, our work is not done.”

Many have been vocal against the move to increase the ESA scholarship, citing that the move takes away from public schools.