Tennessee Lawmakers Create Education Savings Accounts

Published May 6, 2015

Tennessee became the fourth state to offer education savings accounts (ESA) after creating a program designed specifically for special-needs students.

 In June, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed the Individualized Education Act at a ceremonial event held at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville. Haslam officially signed the bill into law in May.  

 In late April, the Tennessee General Assembly passed Senate Bill 27/House Bill 138, sponsored by Rep. Debra Moody (R-Covington) and Sen. Dolores R. Gresham (R-Somerville). The new law refers to ESAs as “individualized education accounts” and models the program on ESA laws in Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi.

Some 20,000 Tennessee students with special needs are now eligible for accounts. The state will deposit public funds in a private bank account parents then use for educational products and services for their child. Parents can pay for therapies, private school tuition, and even save for college, among other possible approved uses.

Customizing Education

The Beacon Center of Tennessee reports one-third of children with special needs in Tennessee do not graduate from high school. ESAs created by this legislation allow families to customize educational services to suit their children’s individual needs. U.S. Department of Education data indicate a 14-point gap between the overall graduation rate for Tennessee students and the rate for students with special needs in the state.

“I became even more convinced as I heard from parents and some in the education community what a great program this was for children with special needs,” said Moody.

A National Trend

There are more than six million children with special needs enrolled in the nation’s public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In national comparisons of reading, math, and science achievement, these students regularly lag behind their mainstream peers, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

ESAs are helping students around the country meet their potential, according to research by the Beacon Center. For example, an Arizona family used an education savings account to buy braille materials for a student with vision impairment in addition to paying private school tuition, according to a Watchdog.org report. The student, Max Ashton, eventually earned a scholarship to college.

Approximately 1,200 students are using the accounts in Arizona, and the state’s Department of Education reports the program has doubled in size every year since its inception in 2011.

Florida lawmakers appropriated funds for 1,800 accounts in the 2014–15 school year, but Step Up for Students, which operates Florida’s accounts, reports some 10,500 families have started applications for the coming school year.  

More than a dozen states have considered education savings accounts since Arizona lawmakers enacted the state’s law.

“We believe this is a true victory for these children and applaud lawmakers for courageously standing up for special-needs families across our state,” said Lindsay Boyd, director of policy for the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and a senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Image by woodleywonderworks.