Ep. 118: Choice in the States – Tennessee with Justin Owen

June 18, 2019

In the first episode of our Choice in the States series, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick chats with Justin Owen from the Beacon Center of Tennessee. They discuss fostering school choice programs and creating more robust eligibility pools for ESAs in the state. Plus, Jason provides an update on a bill passed in Tennessee last month.

Jason Bedrick: Welcome back to another addition of EdChoice Chats. This is the State Policy series and I am your host Jason Bedrick, the director of policy at EdChoice. In between when we originally recorded this podcast and when you were listening to it, there have been some updates in the state of Tennessee and so please stay tuned to the end, at which point I will update you, the listener, on what has actually happened in the interim, but for now I’m glad to be joined by Justin Owen, the president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Justin, welcome to the program.

Justin Owen: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate all you guys do.

Jason Bedrick: Tennessee is one of the more recent additions to the school choice community, but it has been a long time coming. School choice activists and the grassroots have been active in Tennessee for a long time. So, why don’t you fill us in with a little bit of the history of the efforts to promote school choice and enact it in Tennessee?

Justin Owen: Yeah. I think the first year we started making head way towards or pushing for it was 2011 and it was sort of a lonely crew. It was Beacon and EdChoice, then the Friedman Foundation, and Senator Brian Kelsey who championed this issue and talked about it and brought it to everyone’s attention. Unfortunately, over the next couple of years we’ve just failed to get a program passed. We’ve passed something in the Senate. Typically a voucher program, but then it would stall out in our state house.

I think Tennessee and Texas have a similar story where for different reasons House committee structure and House leadership just made it very difficult to get any type of voucher bill to the House floor. We did in one year get to the House floor, but unfortunately we came up two votes short, and so we never put it up for a vote. Since then we’ve started to turn our attention to ESAs as more states embrace this education savings account model as sort of vouchers 2.0. And we were able to get a very limited program passed in 2015. It is limited to children with special needs. Very small program, but it is a starting point and makes us one of only five states that have active ESA programs across the country.

Jason Bedrick: So, let’s talk a little bit about that ESA program. How exactly does it work?

Justin Owen: Yeah, it works just like any other typical education savings account program. The parents of the children who are participating get a pot of money into their education savings account. They get a debit card and they have a list of approved expenditures that they can use that for, ranging from private school tuition, to tutoring, educational therapy—which is a big deal for those children who have special needs and a lot of parents use it for those services—curriculum, online classes. A lot of things can be used with the education savings account dollars and it’s a pretty substantial amount in Tennessee. It averages this year to about $7,700. It tracks our funding formula and so it’s about 75 percent of the total per a people funding that we spend on each child.

Unfortunately, because the program has such small eligibility, because it’s limited to those children with very specific disabilities, we only have 138 kids in the program. But we do believe strongly that if we’re able to significantly expand eligibility for education savings accounts across our state that we’ll have a significantly higher enrollment in future years.

Jason Bedrick: So, right now the accounts are valued at about $7,000 a year and I believe that the funds are dispersed quarterly.

Justin Owen: That’s right.

Jason Bedrick: Like you mentioned, there’s very few students. In the first year you had only about 50 students. Now close to 140 students. So, not quite tripling, but still very very small numbers of participating students and they’re attending 14 different schools around the state. What are the changes that people have been working to make to this program in the last few years and how likely do you think we are to see an expansion to the program going forward?

Justin Owen: For this program itself there hasn’t been a lot of change. There’s been discussion around just the lack of marketing dollars that have been put towards it by the state, so it’s been very difficult to let parents know that it exists and by and large it’s been through word of mouth in groups like ours to try to educate parents of their options under this program. But again, because it’s such a small eligibility pool, you’re not ever going to have really significant numbers in terms of enrollment in a program where just not that many kids are eligible.

Our focus now is moving towards a state wide ESA program that doesn’t have such stringent limits. Yes, special needs children will benefit the most in a lot of cases. We want to make sure all special needs children are eligible as well as kids from every corner of the state to another who, for whatever reason, aren’t being served well in their traditional public school. There are thousands and thousands of families across the state who experience that and we believe if we can create a significant eligibility pool for ESAs, say a third, half, or even more of our total student population which is almost a million children, you can serve thousands of children every year with an ESA program that is that robust. Those are the types of discussions we’re now having with legislatures and the governor and others who are exploring a large expansion of this effort this legislative session.

Jason Bedrick: How are those conversations going? I mean, in the past there have been some efforts. It hasn’t really moved, but there are those who believe that maybe this year we’re going to see some action. So, what’s going on in Tennessee?

Justin Owen: Yeah, this will be the first year that we pursue actual ESAs statewide outside of that narrow population of special needs children. Every year in the past any discussion of a larger program has centered around vouchers. There’s just a lot more support for ESAs. Rural legislatures see the benefits of it. Homeschool families can participate in ways they couldn’t with the voucher. Giving parents more flexibility, boosts support. You even look at polling and ESAs are more popular among average citizens than vouchers were. That’s the case in our legislature as well. There’s growing support. Our new House speaker, he was just elected in January, came out very strongly recently in support of ESAs and said, “This is the year to get it done.”

We have a much more friendly committee process. I will say, I think we have seven committee votes in the House alone to get this thing to the floor, so it’s a lot of subcommittees and committees that we have to go through.

Jason Bedrick: Can you explain just a little bit about how that works? I’m not sure that many of our listeners understand what you mean when you say that there are seven committee votes.

Justin Owen: Yeah, the Education Committee is the main committee of subject matter jurisdiction, of course, and there will be a subcommittee and full committee vote there. We have a Government Operations Committee that any time you give an agency, whether it’s the Department of Education or any other agency, rule-making authority, the bill has to go through their committee and be vetted from that perspective. Then we have Finance Committee and then it has a subcommittee that it has to go through before them. Then we have the Calendar Committee that actually decides when the bill we be heard on the floor.

Some of those typically are more perfunctory, like Government Operations for Rule Making or the Calendar Committee. Typically, we wouldn’t even lobby a bill going through those committees, because it’s just a perfunctory matter, but on something controversial like this the opponents pull out every stop. The teachers union and others will fight every step of the way, so we got to make sure the support is there even in some of those committees that otherwise would not kill a bill in a more traditional setting.

Jason Bedrick: So, in other words, each one of these committees is a potential veto point.

Justin Owen: Exactly.

Jason Bedrick: You have to win at every single step of the way. They only have to win once to stop it.

Justin Owen: That’s exactly right. And they’ve got a lot of chances to stop it.

Jason Bedrick: Right, and when you’ve got concentrated interests it’s very difficult to overcome, but who has the voters on their side?

Justin Owen: Well, we certainly do. In fact, a recent poll by American Federation for Children in the state shows that 78 percent of voters state wide support ESAs and that is drastically higher than it has ever been. It continues to grow year over year. Just a few years ago, I think two years ago, popularity was at 65 percent. So, it’s significantly growing. The support base is there and as long the program impacts the state as a whole and isn’t severely limited in terms of who is eligible, you’ll be able to get parents and tax payers off the sidelines and contacting their legislatures and talking about why this is important and supporting it. I think there’s a real opportunity for us to do that in Tennessee this year. More so than there ever has been.

Jason Bedrick: That’s really interesting because across the country you’ve got national polls like EdNext, and they have found that in recent years there’s been some modest growth every now and then. I think two polls ago there was a slight downturn and then it ticked back up again, but modest growth. You’ve had really incredible growth in the support for educational choice in Tennessee. What do you attribute that to?

Justin Owen: Well, I’d like to take a little bit of credit for the groups that have been involved. Whether it’s us or you guys have been involved in Tennessee trying to legislatures and the public about the importance of these issues. We’ve told stories of families who, even in the same household, their kids one is in public school, one is in private, one is homeschooled. Even kids under the same roof learn differently and benefit from parental choice. The storytelling, the public awareness, the events, the engagement that we’ve done across the state as coalition partners has really moved the needle, in my opinion.

I will say that one of the bigger things I think in terms of recent support is that our new governor has been very vocal about this issue. Our previous governor was supportive of choice and every year funded a proposed voucher program in his budget, but really didn’t lead the charge or make it a top priority. There’s a very good chance that this year our governor will actually make this part of his agenda. And he campaigned on it. Was very vocally supportive of choice on the campaign trail. In fact, it was one of two issues that his Democratic opponent beat him up on and ran ads against him, attacking him for his position on choice. Of course, using the voucher moniker in terms of the criticism. And the governor won by 21 points.

I think it has become very clear to politicians and to legislatures and others that it’s the right side to be on. Not only is it the right thing to do morally and the right thing to do policy wise, but it’s the right thing to do politically as well.

Jason Bedrick: I believe Governor Bill Lee has had a history of supporting school choice. Is that right?

Justin Owen: He has. He has been very vocal from even before the days he decided to run for office. He has been a longtime supporter of Beacon and has supported our efforts to promote school choice. Then, on the campaign trail he talked about it quite a bit and has since emphatically said, “He believes that parents deserve options and choices when it comes to education.” I think having his robust support for this effort will really give us even more ammunition than we’ve had in the past.

Jason Bedrick: Well, we’re greatly looking forward to seeing expansion of educational choice in Tennessee and elsewhere, but you’re one of the shining stars this year. The eyes of the nation or at least those in the school choice community are certainly turned toward Tennessee. Do you have any closing thoughts before we wrap this up.

Justin Owen: Well, this is such an important issue and it’s one that I regret that it has taken so long for us to get the point where this is a viable option for us beyond a very limited program. We were excited to become the fourth state in the country to enact ESAs and so I think we’ve got something great to build upon. I think this is really the year for tremendous action on this issue and it’s long past due for Tennessee to join the ranks of states that give families all across the state—urban, rural, low-income, middle-class—really robust options when it comes to education. We’ve got a great charter law in the state and that serves thousands of kids well, but now is the time to really enact meaningful private choice and I’m hopeful that this is the year we can get it done.

Jason Bedrick: We’re hopeful, too. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. My guest today has been Justin Owen, the President and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

And now for the update. In between when we originally recorded this podcast and now, Governor Bill Lee signed HB 939 into law. The bill was passed in early May by both the House and the Senate, but the law was significantly watered down. So, the bill that Justin and I were just talking about was an education savings account Law originally available to almost every student in the state. But what was eventually passed. Although it kept, in law, the name “education savings account,” it is actually a voucher plus program.

It is for students to use at a private school. If they are using the voucher at a private school, then if there is leftover funds beyond the tuition payment there are a variety of other expenditures, like textbooks and tutoring and whatnot, that they can use those funds for, but essentially it’s a voucher plus program. Not an ESA. It is also only for low-income students and it is geographically restricted to students in Davidson and Shelby Counties. So, it is essentially now just a pilot program for a particular area for low-income students.

Certainly a step in the right direction, although not as large a step as we had hoped. Also, the bill requires all private schools that are receiving voucher students to administer the state test, which we also think is unfortunate, because the state test is aligned to the state curriculum. If you want to send your child to a school that is aligned to the state curriculum you literally have thousands of options, but if you’re looking for something else then well that’s unfortunate, because those private schools are now going to feel pressure to align their curriculum with the state test. If they don’t, then their students are going to be at a disadvantage vis a vis the public school students on those tests or they could stay true to the curriculum that they believe is in the best interest of the children that they serve or they could bend their curriculum to be more in line with the public schools.

That’s hopefully something that they’re going to address in the future. We much prefer nationally norm-referenced tests. Those tests allow families to see how their student is doing relative to a national sample of students, so they can still measure how well their student is doing, but the nationally norm-referenced tests don’t put any pressure on the private schools to change their curriculum to match some certain state criteria. They can adopt whichever curriculum they believe is in the best interest of the children that they serve.

I don’t mean to be offering such lukewarm praise for the program. Again, it is definitely a step in the right direction, but here on the policy series we speak frankly and honestly about good and bad policies. This is a mix of both. Again, a step in the right direction. Just possibly with a bit of a misstep there. Hopefully things that we can correct going forward and we do hope to see one day a universal ESA program in the state of Tennessee.

With that I will remind our listeners, don’t forget to subscribe to EdChoice Chats on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. You can follow us on social media @edchoice and sign up for email on our website at edchhoice.org. Thank you and tune in next time.