How School Choice Can Help Public Schools in Tennessee

Faulty faucets that constantly drip can prove costly over time. In Tennessee, the legislative efforts to fix our education system via school choice have been dripping for the past five years. And indeed, that pattern not only is costing many children their futures, it’s adding up for taxpayers.

As the Tennessee legislative session reaches high tide, there are several education agenda items on the calendar. One of the most important and puzzlingly controversial bills before the legislature is the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The bill would give low-income families the means (in this case in the form of vouchers) to choose the best educational setting for their children. Notably, it would make 200,000 Tennessee children from households that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—about one in five students—eligible to receive a voucher, or “opportunity scholarship.”1

A similar bill passed the state Senate last year but fell one vote short in the House Finance Committee. With fresh faces in the legislature, the chances of passage are greater this year, but not without addressing the concerns of last year’s naysayers.

Of course, studies of voucher programs across the country have shown time and again that parental choice is good for the educational attainment of students who obtain scholarships as well as those who remain in public schools. In addition, these programs also save money. It’s also no secret that local public school districts have struggled in the past to properly appropriate taxpayer money. The Friedman Foundation was one of the first organizations to study the massive growth in administrative spending and the decline in classroom spending over the past several decades.

Zoom in today on the district level and the same is true.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee conducted a study in 2013 showing that, like the national trend, money has been shifting from the classroom and toward administration right here in Tennessee.

Of course, just knowing how districts spend money is not the ultimate solution. Empowering parents to do something about it is.

The study made waves across the state, with parents, teachers, taxpayers, and even school administrators asking the right questions. To meet the public’s demands, Beacon decided to make it even easier for Tennesseans to see how their money was being spent. Beacon recently launched a new website——which tracks expenditures at the district level and makes filtering the information easy for the public.

Tennessee spends more than $9 billion a year on K–12 education, according to the Tennessee Department of Education’s Annual Statistical Report. Sadly, just 53 percent of that money actually makes its way into the classroom. Yet between 2003 and 2013, spending on the central office has grown by 73 percent.2 As administrative spending balloons, fewer dollars are allocated to actually educate our children.

Along those same lines, the number of administrators—or personnel in the superintendents’ and principals’ offices—has grown by 29 percent, far outpacing the growth in the number of students (just 7 percent) or teachers (13 percent).3 This is a serious trend worth a statewide discussion.
Figure 1

Now, with, Tennesseans can spearhead that discussion. They can quickly enter their ZIP Code or choose their district from a drop-down menu and have all the information on educational spending right at their fingertips.

Of course, just knowing how districts spend money is not the ultimate solution. Empowering parents to do something about it is.

With school choice, parents have more power to choose where their children get their education, and by doing so they collectively can influence the education market and policymakers. It doesn’t hurt either that school choice programs can save the state money, which can be reinvested to do anything from increasing per-pupil funding in public schools, developing new community services, paying off debt, returning taxpayers’ money to their pockets, etc.

Because the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act sends only a portion of the funding we already spend on each child to the school of his or her choice, taxpayers also win. Either way, all students still have access to educational services, and much fewer are stuck struggling than were previously. An analysis of the plan shows that every affected school district will have plenty remaining funds to cover their fixed costs, such as those expenses that won’t disappear even after a child takes the cost of instruction to another school.

Figure 2

In addition, most Tennessee public schools will save even more than they need to cover their fixed costs. Larger districts like Memphis and Nashville could not only cover those fixed costs, but they could also save at least $1,300 more every time a child leaves their school to find a school that better suits his or her needs. On the whole, these larger districts could save millions of dollars in instructional costs every year because of opportunity scholarships. We’ve seen other states with similar programs do just that. That’s money that can be reinvested in the public schools, actually increasing per-pupil funding.

Because the sea of people who understand the benefits of such programs is growing rapidly, the Friedman Foundation has signaled that 2015 could be a watershed year for school choice in many states across the country. For the sake of Tennessee’s children—our future taxpayers—let’s hope the Volunteer State joins that wave.


1. Author’s calculations; US Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Local Education Agency (School District) Universe Survey”, 2012-13 v.1a and “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey”, 2012-13 v.1a,

2. Author’s calculations; Tenn. Dept. of Education, “Department Reports: Annual Statistical Report,” accessed Mar. 9, 2015, .

3. Ibid.