Tennessee

Education Savings Account Pilot Program

  • Voucher
  • Enacted 2019
  • Launched 2021

Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program is a state-funded voucher program that 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. The program is currently inoperable pending litigation.

We do not administer this program.

  • 1st

    Tennessee’s First School Voucher Program

  • 69%

    of Families in Nashville and Shelby County (Memphis) Income Eligible

  • $7,300

    Maximum Voucher Value (2020–21)

  • 83%

    Maximum Value as a Percentage of Public School Per-student Spending

Percent of Tennessee students eligible for the Education Savings Account Pilot Program

Student Funding

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 2020–21), 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.

Student Eligibility

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 ($68,120 for a family of four in 2020–21).

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.

EdChoice Expert Feedback

Although billed as an Education Savings Account, unlike ESA programs in other states, students participating in Tennessee’s pilot voucher for low-income students in Memphis and Nashville must be enrolled in a private school. Policymakers could do more to expand educational opportunity.

Eligibility for the scholarships is limited to students in Memphis and Nashville from households earning less than 200 percent of the federal free lunch program ($68,120 for a family of four in 2020–21). About 69 percent of students in Memphis and Nashville are eligible to receive a scholarship. Statewide, only 0.2 percent of students participate in this program. The voucher program is currently on hold pending a lawsuit. Statewide, less than 0.1 percent of students participate in Tennessee’s Individualized Education Account program.

The maximum scholarship size is projected to be about $7,300, which is about 83 percent of the average expenditure per student at Tennessee’s district schools. Enrollment is capped at 5,000 students, which is less than 3 percent of the K–12 student population in Memphis and Nashville.

In order to expand access to educational choice, Tennessee policymakers should dramatically increase funding for the scholarships and expand eligibility to all students (prioritizing scholarships based on need).

Tennessee’s voucher program imposes some unnecessary and counterproductive regulations. For example, the program requires voucher students to take the state’s standardized test. Instead of mandating a single test, policymakers should allow parents and schools to choose from a variety of nationally norm-referenced tests.

Rules and Regulations

  • Income Limit: 200 percent x free lunch
  • Prior Year Public School Requirement: Yes
  • Geographic Limit: Memphis and Nashville
  • Enrollment Cap: 5,000 students (escalator)
  • Voucher Cap: $7,300 (2020–21)
  • Testing Mandates: State

School Requirements 

  • Be approved to participate by the state department of education
  • Comply with all state and federal health and safety laws applicable to nonpublic schools
  • Administer annually to participating students the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) tests for math and English language arts
  • May not share or refund Education Savings Account funds to a participating family
  • Meet state and federal nondiscrimination policies
  • Not employ any staff member that advocates for or belongs to a political party advocating for the overthrow of the American form of government
  • Conduct criminal background checks on employees
  • Maintain a school year that satisfies the state’s compulsory school attendance requirement

Education Savings Account Pilot Program State Groups

That Support School Choice

The Beacon Center believes the state should fund children, not systems. They are longtime supporters of school choice.