Statement on ESA’s/Vouchers in Tennessee

(State­ment released on April 15, 2019) The Ten­nessee Edu­ca­tion­al Equi­ty Coali­tion formed in 2016 in order to har­ness the influ­ence and voic­es of a diverse group of civil rights and edu­ca­tion advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions and lead­ers across the state. From the begin­ning, our shared pol­i­cy pri­or­i­ties cen­tered on address­ing the chron­ic dis­par­i­ties in oppor­tu­ni­ties, achieve­ment and out­comes for stu­dents of col­or, and those learn­ing Eng­lish, liv­ing in pover­ty or with a dis­abil­i­ty. We applaud Gov­er­nor Lee for mak­ing edu­ca­tion a pri­or­i­ty in his first year, and for invest­ing in teacher pay, and increased access to advanced cours­es, STEM pro­grams, career and tech­ni­cal edu­ca­tion, and post-sec­ondary pro­grams for incar­cer­at­ed Ten­nesseans. We worked close­ly with Com­mis­sion­er McQueen and the Ten­nessee Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion on the design and imple­men­ta­tion of the Ten­nessee ESSA plan, and remain com­mit­ted to ongo­ing part­ner­ship with the new admin­is­tra­tion.

How­ev­er, many of our Coali­tion mem­bers believe that Gov­er­nor Lee’s Edu­ca­tion Sav­ings Account pro­pos­al (SB 795/HB 939) is not aligned to our pri­or­i­ties. Par­ents must be empow­ered to make the best pos­si­ble edu­ca­tion­al choice for their child, but this bill is not in keep­ing with the course we have set as a state over the past decade, and which has yield­ed improve­ment across all stu­dent groups. It is not designed to serve our stu­dents that are most in need, and it cod­i­fies edu­ca­tion­al prac­tices that are exclu­sion­ary and dis­crim­i­na­to­ry.

First, this bill, does not address the needs of low-income stu­dents or those attend­ing our low­est per­form­ing schools. In fact, it pro­vides mid­dle income stu­dents in top-per­form­ing pub­lic schools the oppor­tu­ni­ty to access pub­lic funds for pri­vate instruc­tion. The $7300 voucher is not con­sid­ered pay­ment in full to par­tic­i­pat­ing pri­vate schools, and rep­re­sents only a frac­tion of the actu­al cost of most pri­vate schools in Ten­nessee. It is unlike­ly that low-income fam­i­lies can cov­er the remain­der of tuition cost, fees, and oth­er indi­rect expens­es, reduc­ing their chances of par­tic­i­pat­ing. The income thresh­old, set at $65,000 for a fam­i­ly of four, will expand the num­ber of fam­i­lies that can par­tic­i­pate, there­by reduc­ing the num­ber of avail­able vouch­ers for low-income stu­dents. Addi­tion­al­ly, stu­dents from any school in one of the qual­i­fy­ing dis­tricts can apply for a voucher, regard­less of its qual­i­ty.

Sec­ond, this ESA bill does not guar­an­tee school choice. Pri­vate schools will con­tin­ue to adhere to their admis­sions cri­te­ria, despite receiv­ing voucher mon­ey.  They decide who may enroll in their schools, and can legal­ly deny entry to stu­dents based on gen­der, abil­i­ty, lan­guage of orig­in, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, or reli­gious and social beliefs. The Governor’s leg­is­la­tion explic­it­ly dis­crim­i­nates again­st undoc­u­ment­ed fam­i­lies, pro­hibit­ing fam­i­lies with undoc­u­ment­ed par­ents from par­tic­i­pat­ing, even if the stu­dent is an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. This fea­ture of the ESA bill will trig­ger an imme­di­ate and cost­ly legal chal­lenge. The Supre­me Court has long rec­og­nized that “where the state has under­tak­en to provide an edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty, it must be made avail­able to all on equal terms.” Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 223 (1982) Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954)

Third, fam­i­lies with stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties are required to waive their rights to pro­tec­tions under the Indi­vid­u­als with Dis­abil­i­ties Act once they accept a voucher. The­se include the right to dis­ci­pli­nary pro­tec­tions, accom­mo­da­tions for instruc­tion or assess­ments, or access to ser­vices laid out in a student’s Indi­vid­u­al­ized Edu­ca­tion Pro­gram (IEP).

Addi­tion­al­ly, the most recent Sen­ate ver­sion of the ESA bill does not require stu­dents to take the TNReady assess­ment, and allows them to take an alter­nate norm-ref­er­enced test. Ten­nesseans need to know if this finan­cial invest­ment is ben­e­fit­ing stu­dents, and fam­i­lies must under­stand how well pri­vate schools are serv­ing stu­dents with vouch­ers. If pub­lic dol­lars are to be divert­ed to pri­vate schools, they should be held account­able accord­ing to the frame­work we use to eval­u­ate all pub­lic schools, and that must include the admin­is­tra­tion of TNReady. 

Stu­dent achieve­ment ought to be the dri­ving force behind any edu­ca­tion reform ini­tia­tive, and the impact of school vouch­ers on stu­dent suc­cess is incon­clu­sive at best. Research does con­firm that cur­rent ini­tia­tives in Ten­nessee, such as the Inno­va­tion Zones, are demon­strat­ing suc­cess with our low­est per­form­ing schools.  Ten­nessee must con­tin­ue to make invest­ments in proven strate­gies that are mak­ing a tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ence in com­mu­ni­ties and in the lives of stu­dents most in need. 

Ten­nessee has dra­mat­i­cal­ly improved stu­dent achieve­ment in K-12 edu­ca­tion, set­ting records for aca­d­e­mic pro­gress, and rely­ing on inno­v­a­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion in order to keep the focus on what is best for stu­dents. SB 795/HB 939 will be a step back­wards in the pro­gress we have made over the past decade. It is our belief that Gov­er­nor Lee and our state leg­is­la­ture must set bold goals for all 1 mil­lion pub­lic school stu­dents in Ten­nessee, and invest our fund­ing and resources on increas­ing their odds of suc­cess. We remain com­mit­ted to work­ing with the Gov­er­nor Lee and the Ten­nessee Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion on serv­ing and sup­port­ing all stu­dents in our state. 

Will ESA’s impact your community?

If so, we want to hear from you. Teach­ers, stu­dents and com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, tell us how Edu­ca­tion Sav­ings Accounts/Vouchers would impact your com­mu­ni­ty.

Your Guide to Education Savings Accounts and Vouchers in Tennessee

We believe that all chil­dren have the right to achieve their fullest poten­tial in a high qual­i­ty school envi­ron­ment that nur­tures their growth and equips them for suc­cess. We also believe that a key lev­er for stu­dent suc­cess includes a strong account­abil­i­ty sys­tem, sup­port­ed by high stan­dards and aligned assess­ments, that com­mu­ni­cates expec­ta­tions, prompts action and aligns appro­pri­ate and equi­table resources. Our expec­ta­tion is that any school or sys­tem uti­liz­ing local, state and fed­er­al pub­lic dol­lars to edu­cate stu­dents must be held account­able to the goals and expec­ta­tions laid out in Tennessee’s account­abil­i­ty plan.