Testimony Before the Tennessee Senate Standing Committee on Education Regarding SB 1674
Tim Benson, Policy Analyst
The Heartland Institute
January 19, 2022
Chairman Lundberg and Chairwoman Akbari and Members of the Committee:
Thank you for holding a hearing on SB 1674, which would expand access to the Education Savings Account Pilot Program. Expanding this program would be an important step forward in advancing the goal of education choice for Volunteer State students and families.
My name is Tim Benson, and I am a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute is a 37-year-old independent, national, nonprofit organization whose mission is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Heartland is headquartered in Illinois and focuses on providing national, state, and local elected officials with reliable and timely research and analysis on important policy issues.
SB 1674 would allow students who attended a school in a Local Education Association (LEA) that, in the three school years preceding September 1, 2025, failed to offer 180 days of in-person instruction or imposes a mask mandate on students in response to the COVID-19 pandemic the ability to access the Education Savings Account Pilot Program.
In the interest of time, I will not get into the science behind the efficacy of mask mandates on children in this testimony, but will just simply say that with far lower rates of transmission by juveniles, as well as far lower rates of serious illness, Tennessee parents should have the ability to gauge the risk for their children themselves and, if they so choose, send their kids to a school that does not force them to wear a mask during seven or eight hours of instruction. Of course, children should absolutely still be permitted to attend school masked if that is their parents’ desire, but LEA’s should not make that decision for them.
Further, if LEA’s do not offer in-person classes for a full year of instruction, the children in those LEAs should be permitted to attend a school that can and will offer them that basic service.
Copious empirical research on school choice programs like the Education Savings Account Pilot Program makes clear these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment and deliver a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.
Research also shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.
Sadly, Tennessee’s public schools are habitually failing the state’s children. In 2019, only 40 percent of public school fourth-graders and 31 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” to grade level in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) examination, colloquially known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” Just 35 percent of fourth-graders and 31 percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded state “proficiency” standards in reading. Essentially, and embarrassingly, the state’s public schools cannot get roughly 60 percent of Tennessee children to grade-level proficiency in reading and math even when they are open for a full 180 days of in-person instruction. The more children we allow to escape this failing system, the better.
It is probably these dismal results, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that education choice programs like the Education Savings Account Pilot Program are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling by EdChoice released in September 2021 found 78 percent support for education savings accounts (ESA) programs, for example, among the general public and 84 percent among current school parents. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s seventh-annual National School Choice Poll, released in January 2021, which saw 78 percent support for ESA programs.
The goal of public education in Tennessee today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school. Expanding access to the Education Savings Account Pilot Program is a logical step forward in meeting that goal and would be a tremendous benefit to Tennessee children. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and more needed than right now.
Thank you for your time.
For more information about The Heartland Institute’s work, please visit our Web site at www.heartland.org or http:/news.heartland.org, or contact our Government Relations Department at 312/377-4000 or reach them by email at [email protected].
 EdChoice, The 123’s of School Choice, April 14, 2021, https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-123s-SlideShare_FINAL.pdf.
 Greg Forster, A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, EdChoice, May 18, 2016, http://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/A-Win-Win-Solution-The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.pdf.
 M. Danish Shakeel and Corey A. DeAngelis, “Can private schools improve school climate? Evidence from a nationally representative sample,” Journal of School Choice, Volume 12, Issue 3, August 8, 2018, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15582159.2018.1490383?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=wjsc20.
 Corey A. DeAngelis and Angela K. Dills, The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health, October 29, 2018, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3272550.
 “2019 Mathematics State Snapshot Report – Tennessee, Grade 8” Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/subject/publications/stt2019/pdf/2020013TN8.pdf.
 “2019 Reading State Snapshot Report – Tennessee, Grade 8,” Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/subject/publications/stt2019/pdf/2020014TN8.pdf.
 Andrew D. Catt, John Kristof, and Paul DiPerna, 2021 Schooling America Survey, EdChoice, September 2, 2021, https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/2021-Schooling-in-America-PROJECT.pdf.
 American Federation for Children, “School Choice in the Era of Coronavirus: AFC’s Seventh Annual National Survey Results,” January 21, 2021, https://www.federationforchildren.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/1-21-21-AFC-2021-National-Release-Memo-Final.pdf.