Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program, enacted in 2019 and launching by the 2021–22 school year, is the state’s first voucher and second private school choice program. The state-funded voucher is available to students from low- and middle-income households in Memphis and Nashville who are switching out of a public district or charter school or are eligible for the first time to enroll in a Tennessee school. Voucher students who enroll in private schools may also use the voucher funds for various K–12 and higher education expenses in addition to private school tuition and fees. Learn more about the program’s details, including eligibility, funding and regulations, on this page.
Tennessee will provide vouchers to fund tuition and supplemental educational services for low- to middle-income families in Memphis and Nashville whose children choose to attend private schools by 2021.
The voucher amount is equal to the state and local Basic Education Program (BEP) per-pupil amount of a student’s home district or the statewide average BEP (about $7,300 in 2018–19), whichever amount is less. Families may pay for tuition and educational services in excess of the maximum voucher amount.
Funds are deposited into families’ Education Savings Accounts at least four times per school year to help parents pay for private school tuition and fees. Funds may also be used for textbooks, state-approved tutoring and therapy services, transportation to educational institutions or services, computer hardware and software, school uniforms, summer education programs, and higher education expenses.
Students must be eligible to enroll in either the Shelby County (Memphis) or Metro Nashville school districts. In addition, students must have attended a Tennessee public school during the prior school year or be newly eligible to attend a Tennessee public school and come from households earning less than 200 percent of the federal free lunch program ($66,950 for a family of four in 2019–20).
Participating students must be enrolled in a state-approved private school in order to continue receiving Education Savings Account funds. If students move into a different school district while receiving a voucher, they are no longer eligible. Absent this stipulation and annual income verification, returning students are guaranteed vouchers.
For the first year, there is a 5,000-student enrollment cap. If there are more applications than 75 percent of that figure, the cap is allowed to grow by 2,500 students a year until reaching 15,000 students. If there are more applications than vouchers available, the state will conduct a lottery that prioritizes (1) siblings of voucher recipients, (2) students zoned to a priority school as designated by the Tennessee Department of Education, and (3) students directly certified to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program.
Despite its name, Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program operates as a school voucher for families that choose to enroll their children in private schools. Funds must be used to pay private school tuition, then may also be used to purchase a wide variety of supplemental services. Ideally, Tennessee lawmakers would amend the program to be more in line with education savings account (ESA) programs in five states—including Tennessee’s Individualized Education Account Program—that allow ESA users to purchase a wide variety of educational goods and services that include the option of paying for enrollment in a private school.
Tennessee’s voucher program is currently limited to only 5,000 children from low- to middle-income families in Shelby County or Metro Nashville. Although this is a good step for Tennessee students, the program has room to improve. Given that the program is named a “pilot,” we expect to see Tennessee expand the program past its geographic limitations. Tennessee should continue to expand eligibility in the program to include a larger pool of eligible students.
Unfortunately, the program’s regulations on private schools are unnecessarily burdensome. Private schools accepting voucher students must administer the state’s standardized test—a regulation that threatens the autonomy of private schools and has led to higher-performing schools eschewing program participation in other states. Parents and their chosen schools—not the state—should determine what tests their children take.
The program administration is currently under the state department of education, but the legislature should shift it to a different governmental department, such as the department of revenue, or to a nonprofit designated to administer the funds.
Rules and Regulations
On February 6, Tennessee’s newest school choice program was challenged in court by Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County, Metro Nashville Board of Education, and Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee. Nashville and Memphis litigants allege that Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program violates the “Home Rule” Amendment in Tennessee’s Constitution, Article XI, Section 9, which prohibits legislation applicable to a particular county unless the legislation requires local approval. Tennessee’s voucher applies only to children zoned to attend a school in the achievement school district, or in an LEA with ten or more schools identified as priority schools in 2015 and 2018 or among the bottom ten percent of schools academically; in Tennessee, such schools are found in Metro Nashville and Shelby County. It is also alleged that the program violates equal protection guarantees in Article I, Section 8, and Article XI, Section 8, and that it violates Article XI, Section 12, which requires the State to “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” The court approved motions for the Institute for Justice to intervene on behalf of parents, and Liberty Justice to intervene on behalf of schools and parents. Pending.
The Metropolitan Govt of Nashville and Davidson County, et.al. vs. Tennessee Dept of Education, et.al., Chancery Court for Davidson County; Case No. 20-0143-II
In a separate case, on March 2, 2020, the ACLU of Tennessee, Southern Poverty Law Center (Mississippi), and the Education Law Center (New Jersey), representing parents, filed a lawsuit against Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, opposing Tennessee’s Education Savings Account voucher program. They allege the program violates the following articles of Tennessee’s state constitution: 1) Article XI, Section 9, the same “Home Rule” provision being litigated in Metro Nashville vs. TN Dept of Education; 2) Article XI, §12, the “Education Clause” requiring a “system of free public schools”, and Article I, §8 and Article XI, §8 “equal protection” provisions requiring that free public schools offer substantially equal opportunities for adequate education to all students; 3) Article XI, §12 requiring a single system of public schools, 4) Article II, §24, the “Appropriation of Public Moneys” provision requiring an appropriation for the first year of the program. They also allege violation of the BEP statutory school funding formula in that it does not provide for funding any schools other than public schools. Pending.
Roxanne McEwen et. al. vs. Bill Lee et. al., Chancery Court for Davidson County; Case No. 20-0242-II.
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