The Future of School Choice in Tennessee

By Tommy Schultz
What would school choice look like in Tennessee?
If the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act were to become law, giving 5,000 low-income families the option to use a scholarship to send their child to a private school of their choice, there would be tremendous benefits.
Opportunity scholarships are a low-risk, high-yield, accountable investment into children’s education. The best part is the investment uses already existing dollars.
School choice gives students access to empty seats in existing high-quality schools. There are many private schools that have the ability to take in more students, but many low-income families just can’t afford the tuition at those schools. This is where the scholarships become a game changer.
For instance, the Jubilee Schools in Shelby County, where Memphis is located, are privately-run Catholic schools that offer a quality education right in the heart of the struggling school system (Shelby County is one of the five counties in Tennessee with the technically classified “failing” schools). 92 percent of the students are Black or Hispanic and the Jubilee Schools already offer free and reduced lunch. The free and reduced lunch program, along with nationally standardized tests being offered at Jubilee Schools, makes them already comfortable with the various government mechanisms that are needed to operate an opportunity scholarship.
This is important, because once parents receive a scholarship, they cannot just go anywhere—there must be accountability. The private schools must volunteer to be in the program, be ready to offer free and reduced lunch to the students and also meet strict academic standards. If a school fails to provide the necessary requirements, it is removed from the program. This is drastically unlike other failing schools across the state of Tennessee that are allowed to continue offering a terrible education where parents have no realistic options other than to send their children there every day.
The Jubilee Schools alone have more than 500 empty seats that could be filled by students who use an opportunity scholarship.
These schools are proven. These schools have the capacity. The parents in the local area are begging to give their children an opportunity to receive a quality education.
Unfortunately, special interest groups like the Tennessee Education Association continues to fight to keep the status quo of a broken system, spending more than $2 million since 2004 to influence political races and as well as lawmakers on capitol hill in Nashville.
But with grassroots support in Memphis becoming overwhelming, pastors from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the charge and presented 25,000 signatures in support of the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act to the legislature this past year.
With growing momentum, parents will soon have the choices and the power, rather than the special interest groups.

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