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VOL. 43 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 10, 2019

ESA plan: School choice or new entitlement?

By Kathy Carlson

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Now that Tennessee has education savings accounts, what will it do with them? The answer will make a difference not only for the parents and students who will use them to move from a public to a private school, but also for state politics and finances.

Approval of ESAs was a big accomplishment for Gov. Bill Lee during the first legislative session as governor. Lee, a Republican, ran on school choice among other issues and has described himself both as a social conservative and a conservative businessman.

He promoted ESAs as fostering free choice for parents and spurring schools to improve through competition, two arguments associated with conservatism. He also described them as a way to help low-income students leave underperforming schools and receive a quality education, an argument that also appeals to nonconservatives.

But how conservative are ESAs? It depends on how they actually work once they’re implemented, which schools opt in, the quantity and quality of information parents have when they decide on schools, how the state monitors how ESA funds are used and a host of other variables.

ESAs will allow income-eligible parents to take roughly $7,300 in per-pupil state educational funds and use it to send their child to a private school that meets certain state standards. The schools don’t have to accept the ESA as payment in full for tuition. Parents can use ESA money to buy additional approved educational services, such as tutoring, and the program will begin operation with up to 5,000 students in the 2021-22 school year. It tops out at 15,000 students in its fifth year and is restricted to Davidson and Shelby counties.

“I think that for a conservative who votes for more competition, who trusts in the private sector and maybe the religious sector to fulfill a need rather than the government, you can argue that (supporting the ESA bill) is a conservative (position),” says Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Kent Syler.

“If it turns out this plan gives families more choices, challenges the public school system to maybe up their game, you could say it’s a success and a good conservative vote” to support ESAs, adds Syler, who before joining the MTSU faculty was chief of staff for 26 years to former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, a Democrat who represented a Middle Tennessee district from 1985-2011.

On the other hand, Syler continues, the state has opened a new funding stream for private schools, and some see providing new funding sources as something liberals do. Plus, he says, “There’s lots of evidence that when there’s a stream of money … people are going to come in and try to take advantage of it.”


Claire Smrekar, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, has studied school choice programs. She followed the debate over ESAs in this year’s state legislature, as well as the Tennessee Opportunity Scholarships, school vouchers proposed in 2016 during former Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. That bill passed in the state Senate but didn’t reach the House floor.

With ESAs, she explains, proponents effectively cobbled together “a coalition that includes urban, rural and suburban legislators across the political spectrum, mainly using an argument favoring liberty and freedom to choose. Arguing for more freedom resonates in today’s political climate, she adds.

To pick up other supporters, she continues, lawmakers this year made a social-equity argument that ESAs would be targeted to lower-income families who would otherwise not have the option of sending a child to private school. That appeals to more left-leaning or liberal legislators, she says.

The social-equity argument was more center stage under former Gov. Haslam, Smrekar adds, while lawmakers this year made mainly freedom-of-choice but also social-equity arguments in favor of ESAs.

Much on-the-record discussion in the legislature this session touched on freedom of choice and helping low-income children assigned to low-performing schools. The final vote was 51-46 in the House and a 19-14 vote in the Senate.

As approved, ESAs can be used only by families in Davidson and Shelby counties who earn up to two times the maximum family income for free school lunches, or about $65,000 in annual income for a family of four.

As the clock ticked down on the May 1 version of ESAs, state senators opposing the bill argued it was not fiscally conservative, questioning estimates of its cost.


The bill was amended many times in both chambers, and 18 fiscal notes were written before the bill reached a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions. A final fiscal estimated the cost at $335 million over five years.

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, said he was concerned that lawmakers were approving ESAs without what he considered firm information on costs, pointing out how estimates had changed over time.

In supporting ESAs, he said, “We’re getting away from the principles of good, sound, conservative management that have made Tennessee the envy of the nation.”

Fellow Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville agreed and opined that what he called “fuzzy math” could cost Republicans at the polls.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, changed from originally supporting the Senate version of ESAs to oppose the conference committee bill, citing added language that termed an ESA a state and local public benefit.

He noted the language was added to unlawfully exclude undocumented children and children born in the United States to undocumented parents from receiving ESAs for their educations.

“You can’t just believe in part of the 14th Amendment,” he added. “Every single one (of us) swore to uphold the Constitution. This language excludes these children … When we purposely structure a bill that’s designed to exclude a segment of the population we are making a big mistake in the future. …

“Whether you like it or not, these children are here,” Gardenhire said. “I would rather educate these children” so they can get a job and pay taxes.

“I tried hard not to say anything,” Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, told his fellow senators. The bill is flawed on several levels, he said. ESAs were an entitlement program, not a pilot program as supporters said, and once an entitlement is added, it keeps growing. He said the ESA amount of about $7,300 per student would cover tuition at two Islamic schools in Davidson and Shelby counties but wouldn’t cover full tuition at many Christian schools.

The bill passed in the Senate with five votes to spare. ESA supporters in the Senate focused on freedom of choice and helping low-income children in underperforming schools.

House members largely focused on freedom of choice for parents.

Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, who carried the bill in the House, says he considers ESAs fiscally conservative because they let families find the most effective and efficient education for their child.

Another part of the thinking behind ESAs, he adds, is to give public schools greater incentive to improve their offerings, which results in better use of public funding. In Florida, he points out, public schools improved their achievement levels once school choice was offered.

“It’s certainly conservative to say parents can have choice in how (they will use) the money” the state is already providing to fund education, says Justin Owen, another backer of school choice who is president and CEO of Beacon Impact, the advocacy partner of the Nashville free-market think tank the Beacon Center. The fact that the bill chose to provide interim funding to schools that lose students to private schools doesn’t detract from the fiscal conservatism of allowing choice in the first place, he adds.

It will be crucial to see which private schools decide to participate in the ESA program, Dunn says.

Vanderbilt’s Smrekar also is keeping an eye on participating schools and what that suggests about the quality of options for parents considering applying for an ESA.

The bill doesn’t require private schools to accept ESA funds as payment in full for tuition, and to Smrekar, that “raises all sorts of equity concerns,” because only parents who can supplement the ESA amount will be able to send their child to a school that charges tuition that’s greater than the ESA amount. They may be the parents whose income approaches the maximum or whose families can provide greater support.

Informing parents about the choices open to them under ESAs also is critical, she adds. “How can we assure accuracy, access to information? … Where will the information be made available, will it be disseminated in multiple languages, in language that all parents will understand,” she asks.

The bill requires the state education department to post on its website a list of participating schools, grades taught and “any other information that the department determines may assist parents in selecting a participating school.”

Regulations yet to be written will flesh out the required information.

Freedom and liberty are always politically popular concepts, Smrekar notes, but if not enough attention is paid to the process of choosing – ensuring that parents have good options and that their decision-making is sound – the value of the private school option will be undermined.

Syler focuses on policing the ESA program to make sure parents are using the money as intended and that schools are meeting their educational obligations.

“If you don’t police it, you’re not going to give people the choice you wish them to have,” he says. “It undermines the entire program.”

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