​Education Savings Account Bill Troubles School Policy Makers

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
On March 27, the Tennessee legislature House Education Committee voted 14-9 to advance the Education Savings Account bill, Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher program that would allocate up to $7,300 annually to qualifying students who enroll in private schools. The speaker of the house attended the meeting and exercised his option to cast a ballot, voting yes.
“This is the first time a voucher bill has made it out of committee,” said Franklin County School Board Member Sara Liechty. “Students can get the money even if they don’t attend a failing school and aren’t from low-income families. A family of five earning $76,492 qualifies.”
According to the Tennessee School Board Association (TSBA), a student attending a high-performing school is eligible for the program as long as the student lives in a district with three or more low performing schools. Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton, Madison and Knox counties qualify, all of which have some excellent schools. The TSBA also notes the family income ceiling at 200 percent free-lunch eligibility makes the program available to middle income families, even though it purports to serve the economically disadvantaged.
The bill caps student participation at 5,000 the first year, increasing by 2,500 students per year for the next four years. The governor plans to budget $25 million per year to fund the program.
“All the tax payers in the state will be paying for children to attend private schools,” Liechty said.
Board Chair Cleijo Walker expressed concern about loss of revenue to schools. Schools will lose Basic Education Program (BEP) funding for each student they lose. “The bill proposes to give the schools who lose students compensation for loss of BEP funding, but only for the first three years. Then what?” Likewise unsettling, the compensatory grant can only be used for school improvements, not curriculum or instructional enhancements.
Walker also pointed out that private schools choose who to admit. “They aren’t required to take special education kids,” Walker stressed, arguing that this segment of the student population, which cost more to educate, would remain in the public schools.
Responding to voucher criticism, Lee’s plan eliminated spending the funds on homeschooling, but the TSBA noted that the student receiving ESA money must enroll in a private school, the money doesn’t need to be spent on tuition. Other uses include depositing unspent funds in a savings account for the student’s college education.
The TSBA expressed concern about the ESA money being allocated pre-expense, rather than on a reimbursement basis. “Other states with ESA programs have experienced rampant fraud,” said TSBA attorney Garrett Knisley.
Currently, five states allow some sort of ESA: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. In Tennessee, the existing program is fairly small, allocating a maximum of $6,000, and is available only to parents of students with certain disabilities.
Disputing the lack of academic accountability, Liechty said, “ESA students will only be tested in math and English, not science, social studies, and civics.” Testing in all five areas is required for public school children.
Walker worries the program is poised to expand since several districts are on the cusp of qualifying for inclusion by meeting the three-low-performing schools standard. Anderson, Bedford, and Sumner counties each have one low performing school. Fayette and Maury counties already have two low performing schools.
Walker’s prescription for improving low performing schools—“Children need to know you care about them.”
“Don’t skim off some of the kids and leave the rest in failing school,” Liechtry insisted. “This is a bad direction for the state of Tennessee.”
If the ESA bill becomes law, almost one-third of the state’s 1,822 schools will be eligible for the program.