Tennessee Clumsily Waltzes Into The World Of Private School Tuition Assistance

Say the word voucher without a hint of vitriol in the company of hardcore Democrats and you have effectively declared war.

Last week, my timeline was littered with white people calling other white people racist in response to the Great Voucher Battle of 2019 at the Tennessee State Capital. I understand the anger, but, uh, some of the name-callers should absolutely refrain from pulling the race card. But I digress.

In a grand exhibition of political acrobatics and backroom skullduggery, Tennessee legislators, from both chambers, passed one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent memory. It was ugly, indeed. According to hundreds of anti-voucher comments blanketing my timeline, people are mad because taxpayer dollars will be poured into private institutions, much-needed funds will be taken from the meager coffers of an already strapped public education system, and all without the heavy-handed accountability framework forced upon district schools. I get it, I’m angry, too. But for different reasons.

Semi-Vouchers in Tennessee

Full disclosure: I don’t have an issue with the concept of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which is, in my view, a more digestible voucher program and another option for families. They let parents take their kids out of a public school, and have some of the money the district would have used to educate that child go into a special bank account. Then parents would get a debit card they can use to pay for things like tuition to a private school, fees, private tutoring, and a few other government-approved education expenses.

If my acceptance of an additional educational option for families is anti-public school or offensive to the “pro-public school” crowd, ok. I gave up fighting for a system, a way of schooling, that has been wildly successful padding the pockets of private prisons executives and populating the pipeline to low-wage jobs at billion dollar corporations. I’ve instead turned my focus to education by any means necessary, irrespective of school format or venue. Because facts and figures don’t care how they are learned.

But as someone who supports a good ESA plan, what Tennessee’s legislators have produced is inherently bad. They played with the lives of Tennessee’s children by approving policy that both discriminates and makes life harder for the state’s most fragile students. While a special “conference committee” must still negotiate the differences between the House and Senate bills, below are 3 facts about Tennessee’s ESA legislation that should concern all Tennesseans.

If It’s Good for Kids, It’s Good for All Kids, Right?

1. ESAs will be available in Nashville and Memphis only. The cities with the most marginalized students, the largest numbers of low performing schools and with the most choice available to families. The singling out of the state’s blackest cities didn’t bother me as much as legislators from other areas eager to cast an “aye” for us while protecting their constituents from the big bad legislation. 

I can’t make this stuff up.

2. Immigrant students will not be eligible. Let me rephrase this. Public school students who happen to be immigrants will be refused this benefit. Again, can’t make this stuff up.

3. The legislation is confusing and seems unfriendly to parents of Special Education students as parents who opt out of public schools are forced to give up the customized special education plans crafted for their child. If the private school situation doesn’t work out and the student re-enters public school, the child must be re-evaluated and a new plan.  

When You Think ESAs Are Bad Policy, But You Might Try It

Maybe you’re against of the idea of Education Savings Accounts as a matter of public policy, but you wouldn’t mind getting money for your family to send your kids to a private school, here are three things you should know:

  1. The amount of the ESA award is a maximum of $7300. This is a drop in the bucket for larger, elite private schools, but interested families may find smaller religious schools with tuition just below the ESA maximum. Beware of additional schools costs (uniforms, books, transportation).
  2. Household income must not exceed $66,000 for a family of four.
  3. Homeschool families may be eligible.

TN-ESAs 4 Life

Yes, my friends, ESAs are here to stay, unless, by some supernatural shift, Tennessee turns stonecold Blue. You can choose to be angry and continue to name call or you can redirect that energy to fight for the students for whom the program will not be an option. In Nashville and Memphis, with all of its options, remain tens of thousands of children tethered to schools with inferior funding, inexperienced educators, dismal performance outcomes, and low expectations. Unfortunately, the ESA program will not help many of these children, but if a fraction of y’all would get as mad about poor, black and brown children in failing situations as you are about vouchers, well, we might just change the world — or at least the state of education in Tennessee.

2 thoughts on “Tennessee Clumsily Waltzes Into The World Of Private School Tuition Assistance

  1. Now that we know $7,300 per child per year is the correct figure to fund efficient public education (not the $10.5K Nashville’s kids received on average, not the $32K that kids at Ensworth pay), a natural response is for our Nashville School Board to begin the process of converting charters to ultra-efficient state-voucher-funded private schools.

    This will free up $tens of millions in Nashville local property taxes today misdirected to troubled charter schools, and grant raises to our career teachers working hard at our force-integration, non-choice, traditional public schools to finally get the raises that the raises that they were promised last summer, but which failed by one vote in the city council, in no small part due to Mayor Briley’s assurance of veto.


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