Legislation that would establish a school voucher program to allow children in the Volunteer State to attend private schools has once again been introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly.
To qualify for the program, students must be from families whose household income meets the eligibility requires for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Students must also reside in a school district that has at least 30 schools finishing in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in overall achievement. (Only Shelby County Schools meet that dubious distinction.)
The vouchers would cover either the lesser of the full cost of tuition and fees at a private school or “the amount representing the per-pupil state and local funds generated and required through the [basic education program] for the [local education agencies] in which the program is operated.” The total number of vouchers to be awarded for the 2017–18 school year would be 5,000. This number would gradually rise, settling at 20,000 for the 2020–21 school year.
Only 40 percent of Tennessee 4th graders and 29 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” Only 33 percent of 4th graders and 8th graders tested proficient in reading. These results show Tennessee’s public school system is failing to educate roughly six out of 10 4th grade and 8th grade students to a proficient level in reading and mathematics.
Tennessee’s troubling performance on NAEP underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Too many public schools in Tennessee are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives. Parents should be allowed to choose the schools their children attend and should not be penalized financially if that choice is a private religious or secular school.
In May 2016, EdChoice released a report examining 100 empirical studies on school choice programs. Eighteen of these studies used random assignment to measure outcomes, referred to in academia as the “gold standard.” The overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence makes it clear educational choice offers families equal access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires – and does so at a lower cost – while simultaneously benefitting public school students.
Recent polling in Tennessee shows voters view voucher programs favorably. A Tennessee Federation for Children poll of registered voters, conducted in February 2015, found 59 percent—including 69 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of independents—were in favor of legislation introducing vouchers. A November 2015 poll by the Black Alliance for Educational Options found 64 percent of black voters are in favor of vouchers and 93 percent agreed “a candidate’s views of education are important to them before they vote.”
Currently, outside of the very small Individualized Education Account Program, private school choice in Tennessee is literally nonexistent. Enacting this voucher program would put the Volunteer State at the forefront of the education choice movement, and would give more Tennessee families a greater opportunity to meet each child’s unique education needs. When parents are given the opportunity to choose, every school must compete and improve, which gives more children the opportunity to attend a quality school.
The following documents provide more information about school vouchers and school choice.
A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.
2016/17 School Choice Report Card
This report card published by the American Federation for Children scores 27 active non-special-needs voucher, scholarship tax-credit, and education savings account programs against ideal standards for program quality. The report is an excellent tool policymakers and researchers can use to help improve education programs and maximize student participation.
Research & Commentary: Indiana School Choice Parental Satisfaction Should Lead to More School Choice
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson examines an expanded, follow-up study to a 2014 report by EdChoice that examines why Indiana parents choose to take advantage of the state’s Choice Scholarship Program voucher and use it to send their children to private schools.
Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.
The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.
How School Choice Programs Can Save Money
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the Washington, DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.
How School Choice Can Create Jobs
Examining five South Carolina counties, Sven R. Larson found school choice programs were associated with gains of up to 25 percent in youth self-employment. Larson writes, “School Choice raises academic achievement and reduces the problems and costs associated with high school dropouts. But it also has a decisively positive impact on youth entrepreneurship and could provide a critical boost for the economies of poor, rural counties.”
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.
The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Nathan Makla, Heartland’s state government relations manager, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.