2019 School Choice Guidebook Highlight: A New School Choice Program in Tennessee

“We’re not going to get big results in our struggling schools by nibbling around the edges. That is why we need Education Savings Accounts in Tennessee, this year.”

That’s what newly-elected Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said in his inaugural State of the State Address this past January. Gov. Lee campaigned on a platform of providing greater educational options to Tennessee parents, and his first address to the General Assembly put an Education Savings Account (ESA) plan at the heart of that effort. 

The Tennessee General Assembly had attempted to pass expanded private school choice legislation in the past but continually came up short. Absent the passage in 2015 of the Individualized Education Account program for students with disabilities, no expanded private school choice legislation had made it through both the House and Senate.

Thanks to the hard work of the American Federation for Children and Tennessee Federation for Children, Gov. Lee, allied organizations, and legislative leaders in both parties, an expanded ESA law — the largest private school choice program in the state’s history — was finally made a reality during the 2019 legislative session. As AFC’s Tennessee state director Shaka Mitchell said upon the bill’s passage: 

“Today’s vote marks a historic victory for students in Tennessee. Members of the House and Senate voted to open doors for children who have been trapped in failing schools for far too long. They voted to rightly give families choice when it comes to their child’s education. They voted to set children on a path to success.”

AFC’s success in Tennessee is but one of the many accomplishments for the organization across the country. These successes, and the status of other private school choice programs, are chronicled in AFC’s newly-released 2019 School Choice Guidebook.

Starting in the 2020-2021 school year, Tennessee’s ESA program will be available to up to 5,000 students in Shelby and Davidson Counties, encompassing the cities of Memphis and Nashville, respectively. Students must already be in public schools, entering kindergarten, or new residents to the state, and must have a family income under 200 percent eligibility of Free Lunch — equating to $66,950 for a family of four. The cap will be expanded by 2,500 students each year until reaching a hard cap of 15,000. 

The amount per ESA will be roughly $7,300 per child, per year. Schools do not have to accept the ESA as full tuition, but schools can accept the ESA and still award additional financial aid if necessary. Financial aid award decisions are made by participating schools.

And unlike a traditional voucher, parents can use ESA funds beyond tuition for a range of other education-related expenses. These include tutoring, instructional materials, uniforms, and transportation, among others. ESA resources can only be spent at providers approved by the Tennessee Department of Education to ensure accountability. 

As the ESA program moves into the implementation phase, the Tennessee Federation for Children will continue its work to ensure that this critical option be made available and accessible to families who want a choice in their child’s education. Our children are 100 percent of our future, and they deserve 100 percent of our efforts.

For more info on Tennessee’s ESA program, check out TFC’s explainer here.