Research & Commentary: Tennessee Vouchers

Published March 3, 2014

Tennessee lawmakers are trying again to pass school choice legislation after several years of failed attempts caused by differences over how big the program should be. Gov. Bill Haslam wants a limited program for children in the state’s worst 5 percent of schools. Other lawmakers want a larger program for children from low-income families across the state, or at least for children in the worst 10 percent of schools. Haslam says he wants to test whether vouchers work. Voucher opponents say the education choice option takes money from public schools, gives it to greedy corporate profiteers, and does not improve student achievement.

The American Federation for Children states, “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. There are 16 school voucher programs enacted across the country, and research has demonstrated that vouchers increase student achievement, boost graduation rates, and help public schools improve. They also lead to high parental satisfaction rates.”

Voucher proponents point to the stack of gold-standard research showing vouchers not only increase student achievement in voucher students and those remaining in public schools, but also increase social harmony, citizenship, and racial and economic integration. Voucher programs have been operating in the United States for more than 20 years, and longer in higher education (for example, the G.I. Bill and Pell grants). They are well past the pilot phase, as those programs have not only proven successful but also have shown the best practices in creating voucher programs.

Ultimately, 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 private tuition, vouchers give all families the same opportunity to meet each child’s unique education needs. Vouchers also end the injustice of forcing parents to pay both in taxes and in tuition to exercise school choice.

The following documents offer more information about vouchers in Tennessee.


Tennessee Lawmakers Seek Compromise on School Voucher Bill

Lawmakers debating whether to implement a limited school voucher program in Tennessee or a broader one say they’re close to reaching an agreement. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville is carrying a proposal for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam that’s limited to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools. He had that measure withdrawn last year when Senate Republicans sought to expand to a larger number of children, but it may receive a more positive reception this time. Democrats have been among the most vocal critics of vouchers, calling instead for more funds for public schools. Although the two parties remain split on the issue, both sides are working toward a compromise.

Memphis Families Return After Nashville School Vouchers Rally

Thousands of Tennessee parents have shown their support for a bill aimed at helping children in failing schools get a better education. Tennessee doesn’t have school vouchers, but many people hope lawmakers will allow parents who can’t afford to send their children to private schools to use public money to pay for it. Families from Memphis rode buses to Nashville to show their support for school vouchers.

How Tennessee Voucher Momentum Splintered

Years of voucher proposals, polls showing parent support for vouchers, and a governor-sponsored voucher bill did not culminate in a new Tennessee voucher law in 2013. Despite a positive response from legislators early on, the lawmaker carrying Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill withdrew it, citing Haslam’s objections to other legislators’ attempts to expand his proposal.

Study: Vouchers Boost African American College Enrollment

A new, “gold standard” study finds black students who receive a voucher for elementary education are 24 percent more likely to attend college. Researchers Paul Peterson of Harvard University and Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution analyzed data gathered in the 1990s in New York City, when more than 20,000 elementary school children vied for School Choice Scholarships Foundation vouchers. They found African-American voucher applicants and recipients were more likely to enroll in college, regardless of whether they used the entire scholarship amount, reaffirming a plethora of studies showing vouchers are a key to education reform and student success.

School Choice and Religious Freedom

Vouchers are a vital step forward for religious freedom, writes Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He cites three central reasons: Equality under the law requires treating religious people and institutions the same as nonreligious people and institutions; denying people the ability to raise their children according to their consciences undermines religion; and private schools are far better at inculcating civic and moral virtues because these benefit from religion foundations.

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 the District of Columbia, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave, such as for a school choice program. Scafidi finds the remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on national average, are variable costs, ones 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. In the long run, he notes, 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 black students’ college enrollment rates by 24 percent and double student attendance at selective colleges, conclude researchers Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos in the first study to track voucher students from kindergarten to college using the gold standard of research—random assignment—to compare students who won a voucher lottery with extremely similar students 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 claim vouchers do not benefit participants and that they hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and public schools alike.


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 and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].