Research & Commentary: School Vouchers in Tennessee

Published January 22, 2016

Proposed legislation in Tennessee would make vouchers available to children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and who currently attend or are zoned for a school ranking in the bottom 5 percent statewide. The bill would also incrementally cap the number of students to be awarded scholarships each year. A maximum of 5,000 scholarships would be awarded for the 2015–16 school year. Altogether, a total of 42,500 scholarships would be offered through 2018–19.

“School voucher programs have an excellent track record in improving outcomes for students,” Tony Niknejad, state director of the American Federation for Children (AFC), said when the bill was originally proposed in 2015. “Study after study has shown that introducing choice and competition only helps. Moreover, in every state that school vouchers or private school choice has been enacted, the school system saves money in the long term.”

Opponents of vouchers say they take funding from the public schools that need it most and do not improve student achievement. Voucher proponents point to a large number of gold-standard research studies showing vouchers increase student achievement for voucher students and those remaining in traditional public schools and increase social harmony, citizenship, and racial and economic integration. Voucher programs have operated in K–12 school districts in the United States for more than 20 years, and they have been around for even longer in higher education. For example, the G.I. Bill and Pell grants are examples of commonly used voucher programs. Vouchers are well past the pilot phase, as these programs have proven successful and best practices have already been established.

“Vouchers are funded through state tax dollars, allowing parents to ‘vote with their feet’ and select the best schools for their children, public or private,” wrote AFC. “Research has demonstrated that vouchers increase student achievement, boost graduation rates, and help public schools improve. They also lead to high parental satisfaction rates.”

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.”

School choice offers families equal access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires. Instead of unjustly condemning millions of children to failing and dangerous schools because their parents cannot afford to pay private school tuition rates, vouchers give all families a greater opportunity to meet each child’s unique education needs. Vouchers also end the injustice of forcing parents to pay both taxes and tuition in order to exercise school choice.

The following documents offer more information about voucher programs and school choice.

Ten Principles of School Choice
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 school vouchers are constitutional, grassroots activists around the country have been organizing to support passage of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. At least 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders a highly condensed and easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain and precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Internet and a directory of the websites of national organizations that support school choice.

New Survey Shows Black Voters Strongly Support Parental Choice for Education Options in Tennessee
This press release by the Black Alliance for Educational Options discusses a 2015 survey showing black voters in Tennessee overwhelmingly support school choice: “The survey reveals clear support for greater freedom in the K–12 education system with a noticeable majority supporting educational options in their school districts. There was also widespread recognition for the need for better quality schools, which includes ample support for charter schools and scholarships for low-income and working-class Black families to have access to private schools.”

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
This report by Benjamin Scafidi is the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and the District of Columbia. Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave a school to enroll elsewhere. Scafidi finds the remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average nationally, are variable costs that change 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 leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. Scafidi says in the long run, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal disasters for government schools.

The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment
Vouchers boost college enrollment rates for black students by 24 percent and double student attendance at selective colleges, conclude researchers Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos. Their study, the first of its kind, tracked voucher students from kindergarten to college using the gold standard of research—random assignment—to compare students who won a voucher lottery with students in similar circumstances who didn’t.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers
Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice collected the results of all available empirical studies using the best available scientific methods to measure how school vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants, and all available studies on how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Contrary to the widespread claims vouchers do not benefit participants and that they hurt public schools, empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and public schools alike.

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
Examining the evidence on school choice across the globe, this paper from the Cato Institute finds the efficiency—student achievement per dollar spent on education—of private education provision was higher than for public education provision in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in public 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 one in Washington, DC, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After One Year 
This U.S. Department of Education study found no primary impact, positive or negative, on student achievement in voucher programs, despite chronic underfunding.

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.”

School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006 
Examining the fiscal effects of school choice programs, Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation Senior Fellow Susan Aud found $444 million in savings in the years 1990–2006, $422 million of which was from local school corporations. The direct passage of savings to school districts has a profoundly positive net benefit on districts, but not enough to enable them to compete with the high performance of private schools or charter schools.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
The U.S. Supreme Court decision Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. Other important legal questions fall into four categories: the scope of students’ right to an education and parents’ right to choose their children’s schools; state-constitutional obstacles to private school choice; the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students; and the religious-liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. This report from the American Enterprise Institute notes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but the report says they also create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale existing programs and expand program options.

The Integration Anomaly: Comparing the Effects of K–12 Education Delivery Models on Segregation in Schools
Kennesaw State University economics professor Benjamin Scafidi, also a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation and director of Kennesaw State’s Education Economics Center, examines the relationships among traditional public schools, school choice programs, and racial diversity. Although in many cases neighborhoods are becoming more racially integrated, traditional public schools are actually becoming less so. Scafidi concludes existing evidence indicates school choice is a diversifier, leading to greater racial integration in schools.

School Choice Across the Globe
Despite the heated rhetoric, critics of school choice may be surprised to learn voucher programs are quite common in the economically developed world. Twenty-five of the richest countries in the world have vouchers or tuition tax credits for students to attend private schools of their choosing. Most significantly, many of these countries have more robust school choice programs than those present in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty reports in a Policy Brief. Exploring school choice in Chile, the Netherlands, and Sweden, the study found market-oriented programs, such as those that provide universal voucher eligibility regardless of income, have existed in other countries for many years.

America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice
More than 12 million American students exercise some form of school choice by going to a charter, magnet, or private school or opting for homeschooling, instead of attending a traditional public school. Countless others use district-wide lotteries, attendance waivers, or inter-district transfers to attend public schools other than the ones in their neighborhoods. But some cities are significantly more “choice-friendly” than others, and some are downright hostile. Using nearly fifty markers of “choice friendliness,” this report ranks 30 American cities on school choice.


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 at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at

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