Sitting on a desk in Rankin County is the one hope a mother had for one of her twin daughters. It’s an Education Scholarship Account application.

Currently, just over 400 students utilize the program, with 250+ on the waitlist. During this legislative session, there was one bill to expand the ESA. It did not pass. Nor did the effort to extend its life to 2024, as opposed to 2020. It would have to be taken up again next session for it to possibly be extended. 

That’s why the application still sits on the desk.

“I was going to apply but now that it’s essentially dead I’m not applying.”

Danielle Kirk* has twin girls who are in the first grade. One of them, Rachel*, has autism.

“We would have used the money toward tuition to New Summit,” said Kirk. New Summit is a private school, with a specialized program for students with autism called Spectrum Academy.

Rachel has been participating in early intervention, therapy, and other supplemental activities since she was 2 years old. She attends therapy both in and out of school. Between therapy, school, and extracurriculars, Rachel could be on the run until 9 pm at night.

While the therapy has helped Rachel, the lack of training for teachers has shown itself to be a growing problem as she advances through school.

While the ESA is not currently garnering the support in session to make any immediate changes, Kirk says there are other options that could be discussed in the future.

“Autism is on the rise and we need to prepare for that to be able to equip our future with the best resources and education. Our state is so behind in so many of these areas,” said Kirk. “Public school teachers need more training and we need more trained SPED teachers who can offer inclusion. Lots of other states already have free specialized schools for kids with autism.”

Louisiana has just in the last school year opened a school that is funded through donations and operated by a non-profit, but serves the same purpose as The Spectrum Academy at New Summit.

“(That’s) just a small example of how behind Mississippi really is,” said Kirk. The Emerge School for Autism in Baton Rouge is tuition-free and was born from research and the demand for better accommodations for students on the spectrum.

Essentially, it is a charter school for students with autism.

While early intervention does not fall solely on the schools, many children don’t get a true diagnosis of autism until they are four years old, according to the CDC. With this, children have a year to get as much therapy during the day as they can before school starts. Then the parents have to juggle both school and therapy.

Other parents have joined in with Kirk when it comes to voicing the lacking selection of resources for students with special needs in Mississippi. Empower Mississippi has spoken with parents who are on the ESA waitlist, and many of those parents have spoken openly at the Capitol. Parents are working two jobs, living away from the rest of their family and other children, traveling long commutes and making other grave sacrifices to be closer to where the resources are.

But what about the families that can’t make those changes?

Children with autism do not develop at the same rate as their peers. Some do not talk, some lack motor function, others cannot tolerate loud noises–autism does not impact any two children the exact same way.

However, there are numerous therapies and techniques that can greatly improve the development of children with autism, and their ability to flourish among their peers. The students of The Emerge School in Baton Rouge, after receiving one-on-one and group therapies to meet their needs, will reunite with the traditional public school system with the tools they need to thrive.

Families who do not have access to highly trained teachers, who do not have the means for additional therapy, who do not have an ESA or another school in their area will not see the benefit of those therapies for their child. In turn, the child may not thrive among their peers. It is a bold statement, but it is true. Without finding the best way to attend to the child with autism in their own way, on their own level, they may never do things other children enjoy each and every day.

But what about public schools?

There is the argument that public schools are harmed by allowing taxpayer dollars to follow a child to a private school that best fits their needs. But for every canceled voucher, there’s the argument that a child is missing out on an opportunity to thrive.

Training for teachers, an increase of special education teachers, and bringing therapies into the everyday school routine across the board could alleviate the drain out of the public school system.

“My main issue with public school is I have to train the teachers on autism and all that it entails,” said Kirk.  “I so wish it was the other way around and that they’d already know what to do and teach me a few things.”

There is one final shot for the ESA in this current legislative session, according to Elyse Marcellino with Empower Mississippi.

The Education Appropriations bill will actually fund the line-item, and that’s where the number can increase,” said Marcellino. That would help get more students the ESA while it exists. “Right now, the funding amount is $3 million, and we are advocating for another $3.25 which would fund 500 seats as authorized in the law.”

Lawmakers will take up appropriations bills starting next week and will continue work on those through April 2nd.

Y’all Politics will continue to follow developments regarding the ESA.