Opinion: Gauge Education Savings Account program over longer term before considering expansion

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Silverdale Baptist Academy is one of the private schools in Hamilton County approved to participate in the state's Education Savings Account program during the 2023-2024 school year.
Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Silverdale Baptist Academy is one of the private schools in Hamilton County approved to participate in the state's Education Savings Account program during the 2023-2024 school year.

Unless and until public schools undergo a massive improvement, parents will desire more choices for their children's education.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee believes the state should help provide one of those choices by offering qualified families Education Savings Accounts, allowing them to use government money to help their child attend a qualified private school they think better fits their needs.

To date, that program is available in only Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby counties. But the governor now wants to expand it statewide.

We fully support school choice and what has up to now been a pilot program. We'd have preferred the program run for perhaps five years, for state officials to evaluate it and then determine whether its success (or lack thereof) commends it to be expanded.

However, Lee's proposal — the Tennessee Education Freedom Scholarship Act of 2024 — would begin by offering 20,000 $7,000 education scholarships in the 2024-2025 school year for students whose families are at or below 300% of the federal poverty level ($90,000 for a family of four), have a disability or are currently eligible for an Education Savings Account.

The following year, 2025-2026, the scholarships would be available for all students eligible to attend a public school.

In the past, we've never bought Democrats' beefs about a limited education scholarship program taking money out of public school because the arguments never held water. Public schools are funded by state and local governments according to the number of students enrolled. If one public school student enrolled in a private school, the public school would not get the money for that student only. But neither would the students be in the public school where resources would be expended on them.

That argument aside, in Tennessee the Education Savings Accounts are funded outside the current K-12 funding model. In other words, the money doesn't follow the student from a public to a private school.

(To prove how ingrained the take-money-out-of-public-schools lie has become, it was resurrected by both the Tennessee Education Association chair and the Senate Democratic Caucus chair in reports on Lee's proposal.)

If the new scholarships become available to all students, public schools indeed might have significant drainage. Scholarship proponents might say that is a good thing because it would force public schools to compete and improve. Opponents might say it would leave public schools as glorified babysitters, attempting to force-feed education to the remainder of students who get little motivation and reinforcement at home and students whose parents can't afford to make up the rest of a private school tuition.

There are caveats, though:

› Most private schools have academic standards and do not have to participate in enrolling students eligible for the education scholarships.

› As noted above, the $7,000 scholarships are only a portion of tuition at some private schools. Many parents will not be able to make up the rest. Tuition for one high school student at Chattanooga Christian School, which does accept the education savings accounts, for example, is $16,700, less than half of which would be covered by the scholarship.

› Although students in all 95 counties would be eligible for the education scholarships, private schools — much less private schools that would accept the scholarships — are not available in every county. Using the state database of non-public schools, we chose at random three smaller counties — Grundy, Haywood and Lake — to see if they even had private schools. Grundy has two, but neither Haywood nor Lake has one.

We won't know exactly what all Lee is proposing until the bill is introduced for the 2024 Tennessee legislative session, but since the governor was joined in his announcement last week by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose state is in its first semester of a statewide voucher program, we can imagine it will be similar. That state's program also will be expanded over the next two years until it is open to all.

We wanted the Education Savings Account program kept to a pilot program initially to gauge its success. Although we have seen no published figures to back up their statements, at least two education officials commenting on Lee's new proposal have said data from Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests show students who received the scholarships scored lower than their public school peers during the 2022-2023 school year.

Even if that is true, no pilot program of this magnitude should be judged on one year. But the data rumor is precisely why we preferred it stay a pilot program for now.

Going forward, we hope Lee's scholarship expansion will get at least the same scrutiny his initial stab at the scholarships did when they barely passed in 2019. With so much uncertainty, it certainly deserves a hard look.

Let us be clear that we still believe a grounded and supported student can get an excellent education in a public school, but since that is not possible for all, and everywhere, more school choice is needed. But we're not ready to say the statewide expansion of the scholarship program is the perfect answer.

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