Don’t Delay Expanding School Choice for Tennessee Families
There was no shortage of important education bills passed by the General Assembly this year.
Lawmakers approved, and Gov. Bill Lee signed into law, bills that increased teacher pay, provided additional funds for school safety, allocated more resources to struggling rural schools and gave low-income families greater educational freedom by establishing an Education Savings Account program.
While opponents of parental choice appear ready to attempt delaying the start of this program, it’s critical that ESAs be made available to students for the 2020-2021 school year so that they are not forced to fall behind even more.
Small but impactful
The ESA program allows qualifying families to use the state money allotted to their child at a school of the family’s choice. The state money – roughly $7,300 on average – is deposited into a limited-use account to be used for private school tuition, tutoring, transportation to school and other educational activities and resources approved by the Tennessee Department of Education.
The program is also relatively small but will be extremely impactful for the children who have the opportunity to use it. ESAs will only be available in Nashville and Memphis to families earning 200% of the income eligibility for the Federal Free Lunch program – currently $65,260 for a family of four.
Opponents’ hyperbolic claims about the program are overblown and made by individuals more interested in preserving buildings and supporting adults than they are with making sure each child gets a quality education.
We’ve heard the criticism that this law seems punitive to lawmakers in Nashville and Memphis. While we have made tangible progress in public education as a state over the last decade, the current system still leaves many children behind, especially in Tennessee’s two largest counties.
Davidson and Shelby counties are home to more than 90% of Tennessee’s failing schools. District-wide, only 22% of Davidson County students are at grade level in math, with 25% at grade level in reading. In Shelby County, only 20% of students are at grade level in math and reading.
It’s imperative that we address these problems in our public schools. It’s equally imperative that we give students who are struggling or failing to reach their full potential in their assigned school the option to attend a school that will better fit their needs. These two goals are not mutually exclusive.
Time is of the essence
The ESA law allows for the program to begin no later than the 2021-2022 school year, but families need this option as soon as possible. An extra year may not seem long to some, but it’s absolutely crucial to a student struggling to read.
Our students cannot and should not languish another year in a school that is not working for them. A year of inaction is a year wasted for thousands of children. We owe it to our state’s students and their families to give them access to the educational setting that best meets their need. Let’s put students needs first, and give them ESAs as soon as possible.