Last year was a big one for education reform in Tennessee. During the last legislative session, Tennessee state policymakers lept into action on behalf of students, increasing the number of course access providers, creating a new school funding formula, and supporting charter school facility funding. This year, legislators should be looking to build on that success, and they’d be hard pressed to find a better time to get the ball rolling than National School Choice Week.
This week, NSCW events will take place across the country to celebrate and bring awareness to the education options available to families. For instance, an event hosted by the Student Award Center is taking place at the Discovery Park of America in West Tennessee on Saturday, Jan. 28.
Tennessee state legislators should seize the opportunity this week to set bold goals for education freedom in their state in 2023, like making education choice accessible to every child in Tennessee, no matter their background.
Currently, Tennessee has two private education choice programs. The Individualized Education Account Program (IEAP) and the Education Savings Account Pilot Program (ESAPP). The IEAP was launched in 2017, serving the two percent of Tennessee students diagnosed with a particular learning disability and an IEP. The program allows the families of these students to receive around $7,000 to spend on their student’s unique educational needs, such as therapy, tutoring, or tuition, should they choose to leave the traditional public school system.
Tennessee’s other private education choice program, the ESAPP, is slightly more generous, giving students a scholarship of around $7500 to use on tuition and fees at a private school. But, the voucher program is limited to only serving a maximum of 15,000 low and middle-income students assigned to attend a Metro Nashville public school, a Shelby County district school, or a school in the Achievement School District (ASD).
The current education choice programs are undoubtedly great for students with an IEP or who live in select school zones, but the programs are unnecessarily selective. The status quo leaves too many vulnerable students in Tennessee who could also use an education option that meets their unique learning needs behind.
However, staying true to form, the Tennessee State Legislature is stepping up and proposing a solution — Senate Bill 12. SB12 would expand the ESAPP to any school district in the state with at least five schools in the bottom ten percent of performance and identified in the 2015, 2018, and 2021 priority school cycles.
But why not just extend education freedom to every family, empowering them with the maximum amount of choice for their student?
If history is any guide, the more Tennessee students who get to use the program, the better. Studies on the impacts of private educational choice programs for students who have access to them report increased test scores, educational attainment, and civic values. Students who choose to stay in public schools see increased test scores, too, as 25 of the 28 studies done on education choice programs, once implemented, find positive standardized testing impacts on public school students.
Tennessee expanding its education choice program to every student in its state would be a win-win scenario. If Tennessee state legislators recognize this, a whole generation stands to benefit. So, this week let’s take steps to put Tennessee at the top of the education freedom rankings by expanding the education options available to students and families, further celebrating the unique individuality of every child in Tennessee.
Cooper Conway is a Scholar-in-Residence at the Student Award Center and a contributor at Young Voices, where he focuses on education reform. Follow him on Twitter @CooperConway1.