Tennessee Education Proposal

Set to Funnel Public Money into Private Schools

Tennessee Education Proposal Set to Funnel Public Money into Private Schools

by Fred Jones // May 30, 2019

Republican Governor Bill Lee entered his inaugural gubernatorial term by proposing an Education Savings Account (ESA) program, more popularly known as a school voucher, that would allow $25.5 million in public funds to be taken away from Tennessee’s public schools and funneled into private schools and education third-party service providers. This past weekend Governor Lee signed a version of his ESA proposal into law despite a series of political controversies, including reported FBI investigations into whether or not House lawmakers received bribes for their affirmative ESA vote in addition to the resignation of House Speaker Glen Casada for racist and lewd text messages that became public.

Nonetheless, HB 939 and SB 795 establishes ESAs that would pay for qualified education expenses including, but not limited to: private school tuition, tutoring services, transportation, and postsecondary expenses and fees. The Tennessee delegation, however, approved a targeted ESA bill that would only service low-income students zoned for Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and the Achievement School District despite longstanding funding and performance disparities in existing Memphis and Nashville public schools.

This law is also particularly harmful for students with disabilities because it weakens comprehensive federal protections. The legislation requires any family with a child who has an Individualized Education Plan who accepts an ESA to relinquish their rights and services protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law authorizing minimally adequate services for students with special needs.

Education Savings Accounts & School Vouchers Perpetuate and Increase Inequities

  • School Vouchers Do Not Improve Academic Performance: A review of the most comprehensive forms of school vouchers from the Center on Education Policy concluded that “studies have generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools with vouchers.”[1]According to Dr. Stephen Owens from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, “Vouchers are consistently associated with lower test scores for participating students…These results counter the widespread belief that private school education is a wholesale improvement on public schooling. Studies of vouchers suggest that performance differences between public and private school students can be explained by factors such as students’ family income rather than an indication that private education is inherently better.”[2]
  • School Vouchers Lack Universal Access for Students from Low-Income Families: Programs that use public funds for private schools usually do not cover the full cost of tuition and therefore do not actually support all students equally. This is especially the case for students from low-income families who are unable to cover the difference in cost. Currently, Tennessee’s new ESA program does not allow any individual student to receive more than $7,300 for an ESA. In many cases, private school tuition is double the ESA allocated amount, allowing just a portion of eligible students whose family can afford the remaining tuition to access the ESA. Private schools also are not held accountable for implementing any potential discriminatory admissions criteria, such as barring hairstyles such as braids or locs that disproportionally impact students of color.
  • School Vouchers Weaken Civil Rights Protection: Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities are already entitled to attend private schools with the full cost of tuition covered when a neighborhood public school is unable to provide services that meet a student’s individual need.[3]Students with disabilities are done a disservice by accepting a school voucher or ESA to cover just a portion of the cost in exchange for waiving their right to a free and protected public education.

Recommended Pathways Forward

  • Shelby County School District and Metro Nashville Public Schools should exhaust every legal avenue to avoid the implementation of the ESA program. States and school districts across the country have had varying degrees of success halting public funds for ESAs. Most notably, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the state could not use public money to fund ESAs. It is possible Tennessee could have similar success, effectively ending Tennessee’s ESA program.
  • The Tennessee state legislature should refrain from funding the program. Using public funds for private schools removes much needed resources from the public school system to support a private system, which is not accountable to the taxpayers supporting it. It is also extremely questionable whether this bill would have ever passed the House or Senate if the former House Speaker’s alleged actions had become public prior to the ESA vote.
  • The Tennessee legislature should increase its investment in research-based and equitable school improvement strategies, such as weighted school funding, teacher professional development, wraparound services, and community engagement, to schools with a high percentage of low-income students, students of color, and other historically underserved students so that families can fully access a high-quality public school in their neighborhood.


[1]Usher, A. & Kober, N. (2011) Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research.Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

[2][2] Owens, Stephen. (2019) Bills Set to Divert Hundreds of Millions of Dollars from Public to Private Schools. Atlanta GA: Georgia Budget and Policy Institute

[3]Individuals with Disabilities Act Statute:  20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(10)(B)https://sites.ed.gov/idea/statute-chapter-33/subchapter-II/1412/a/10

2019 Governor Races
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