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We need an update on Tennessee’s private school voucher program

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

I have been following our state’s private school voucher debate for some time.

It has been a frustrating journey to get to where we are today. The courts finally opened the doors for Shelby County and Metro Nashville private schools to enroll students and get this initiative off the ground.

The Chancery Court of Davidson County lifted the injunction on the program in mid-July, and it has been in implementation mode ever since.

If you have not been keeping up, Tennessee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program, a state-funded private school voucher program, available to students from low- and middle-income households in Memphis and Nashville, is now moving forward.

Once the courts gave Gov. Bill Lee and his team the green light, they wasted no time putting the wheels in motion to implement the new legislation.

A few weeks ago, there were reports that more than two thousand families in Memphis and Nashville had formally expressed an interest in receiving private school vouchers.

We have been waiting for Tennessee’s Department of Education to update the public on its progress, but we have heard little since the start of school.

While my perspective or opinion about this initiative has shifted from time to time, I think overall, it is a pretty good opportunity for students and families, especially students of color.

Here’s why.

First, I am a staunch advocate for school choice. Therefore, I fully support responsible policies that allow families to take their children’s education dollars to an approved education provider of their choosing – whether it is traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, home schooling, or virtual learning.

Private school vouchers are state- or school-district-funded scholarships. They allow students to attend a private school of the family’s choice rather than a public school.

The objective of the program is to extend the financial support from the government to other education providers and thus give all parents, regardless of income, the opportunity to choose the school that best suits their preferences.

ESA is a state-funded private school voucher program available to students from low- and middle-income households in Memphis and Nashville who are switching from a public school district or charter school to a private school.

According to the ESA website, the voucher program allows eligible students zoned to attend a Memphis-Shelby County school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD), to use state and local funds toward education expenses, including tuition and/or fees at approved private schools.

At this point, however, the public still does not know how many of the 2,000-plus families who applied this year met the qualifications for the voucher program, nor how many of those students are in Memphis or Nashville. This might be because the program was rushed into operation just after approval.

This year’s cap is set at 5,000 total students. The Tennessee Department of Education will conduct an enrollment lottery if qualifying applications exceed that number.

With the continued growth of charter schools and now the expanded availability of private school vouchers, parents have a growing menu of high-quality schools to choose from for their children’s education.

This kind of choice opportunity has not always been available to families in the past.

School vouchers can help improve education by making public schools compete with private schools for students in a free market environment.

As a charter school principal, I always felt the tug and pressure of free market competition for students in our school system. Each year we competed vigorously with both private and public-school sectors for students to fill our seats.

Public schools will have to offer better educational services and safer spaces for learning and be more accountable to parents to compete with publicly funded private schools.

Yeah, right, I know, it sounds weird: “Publicly funded private schools.”

However, as a parent, I like the idea of being able to use my tax dollars to send my child to whatever school I choose, whether it is a public school, a public charter school, or a private school.

The combination of charter schools and private school vouchers to support broader school choice is a huge plus for public school parents.

Is the system perfect? No.

Safeguards are needed to monitor how these students and families are being supported and strengthen accountability to ensure funds are being utilized appropriately.

But as I said earlier, I am a staunch advocate for the expansion of school choice in our state. The broader the menu of quality choices, the greater the benefits for our children.

(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)

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