Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account Program Invests in Hope

The following op-ed originally appeared in the Tennessean:

Every morning when my girls go to school their backpacks are loaded. In addition to pencils and markers, reading material, and forms that need to be returned, the pockets contain any number of other things that often make these bags burst at the seams.

They also bring something less tangible – the hopes of their parents and grandparents. I carried similar freight when I was younger, as did my parents.

All children, and especially those who, like me, grew up without the guarantee of economic prosperity, enter school carrying their parents dreams for a brighter future.

If, however, as one-time Nashvillian Oprah Winfrey said, “education is the key to unlocking the world, a passport to freedom[.]”, many of Tennessee’s students will never fully realize the future they deserve.

New data show high school graduates are not prepared for college or career

There’s a way to begin to fix these problems, and it begins with Governor Lee’s bold proposal to give parents greater school choice through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

But first, let’s look at the numbers of the status quo in Nashville. According to the most recent Tennessee Department of Education’s report card, only 27.4% of Metro Nashville Schools passed the state’s annual test, which measures student proficiency in math, language arts, and science.

That’s well below the state average. Worse, this number is even lower than the year before. In a city where everything today is bigger, taller, faster, and constantly moving forward, our kids are falling further behind their peers.

When it comes to preparing students for the next stage of their life, the data is similarly disappointing. Only 23.6% of Nashville high school graduates are ready for post-secondary education – the remaining 76.4% require remediation courses upon entering college.

These problems aren’t just limited to Nashville, either. The Tennessean recently reported an alarming number of high school graduates across Tennessee are not prepared for their post-secondary education or career.

This data should be nothing short of alarming. The unfortunate reality is that the status quo is not working here in Nashville, and it is not working in school districts across the state. If our schools are not teaching children to read at grade level, if they are not preparing students for college or career, then they are not succeeding. Period.

ESAs are not a silver bullet, but they are one mechanism

The status quo should rightly shake our faith in a school bureaucracy that is failing to serve thousands of students. Let’s put that faith in Tennessee’s parents to know and choose the best education for their children. Let’s give them a choice. That’s exactly what Governor Lee’s ESA proposal does.

What’s an ESA? ESAs are an innovative, student-centric solution that allow participating families to have their tax dollars follow their student to pay for a variety of education expenses. Tuition, school supplies, tutoring, and extracurricular activities may be funded through an ESA.

ESAs, and other school choice programs like them, work. According to an analysis by the Foundation for Excellence in Education of the 18 gold-standard studies on the academic outcomes of students in private school choice programs, 14 show positive results for participating students, two have neutral findings and two have negative findings. The evidence weighs heavily in favor of these programs.

And it’s not just the students who use the program that benefit – students who stay in public schools perform better academically as well. Florida has the most choice-friendly school system in the country, and their public school students significantly outperform Tennessee students in reading and math despite nearly identical demographics and per pupil expenditure.

There are powerful forces defending the current system who loudly attempt to shout down education reform. They seek to prevent change by spreading fear, because fear is paralyzing and paralysis prevents change, even when it’s most necessary.

And let’s be honest, under the current system, families who can afford to move to a better school district do so, even if it means uprooting from their neighborhood and signing a mortgage they can barely afford. The families left behind are stuck – left to languish in a school that has often performed poorly for decades. They have no hope.

Let’s give them that hope back. ESAs will begin that process. While by no means a silver bullet to all of our educational ills, greater parental choice through ESAs is but one of many mechanisms that will improve education for all Tennesseans.

It’s time to put our students first and ensure that every child in Tennessee has access to a high quality education that prepares them for life after graduation. Governor Lee’s proposal is squarely on the side Tennessee’s students and their families. We hope legislators will choose their side over the unacceptable status quo.

Shaka Mitchell is the Tennessee Director for the American Federation for Children.