Editorial: Making Tennessee's Pilot ESA Program Universal Benefits All Students

Making Tennessee’s Pilot ESA Program Universal Benefits All Students

by Cooper Conway

It looks like 2023 will be the year of ESA, with 70 bills related to Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) already introduced in 31 states since January. However, some states that passed ESAs years prior are debating the next steps they should take with their educational choice programs.

For instance, Tennessee currently only extends eligibility for their state’s pilot ESA program (worth nearly $7,500) to students from lower and middle-income families in Memphis and Nashville, leaving a public school for the first time. A new bill — Senate Bill 12/House Bill 433 — would expand eligibility for Tennessee’s Pilot ESA to students enrolled in schools in Hamilton County, another metropolitan area with a history of failing public schools. This is slow progress, but if Tennessee lawmakers want to create a K-12 system that acknowledges students’ individual needs, they should establish universal eligibility for their ESA program. Making their ESA program available to all students would not only open up better options for families, but would also incentivize underperforming public schools to improve.

Many Volunteer State policymakers understand the one-size-fits-all educational model of the past is archaic. Steps taken in recent years to improve the system include modernizing the student funding formula, supporting charter schools, and passing education choice legislation. Nevertheless, they can and should continue to put students first by expanding their ESA program’s eligibility to every student in the state. A dozen ESA-related bills introduced this year are universal, indicating that legislators in other states have looked at the research and come to the conclusion that access to an ESA program would benefit all students, not just those in certain areas. Tennessee’s legislature would be wise to do the same. 

ESA funds can be put towards whatever model best educates the student, and that’s not necessarily the traditional K-12 system. This flexibility creates beneficial outcomes for all students, regardless of whether they participate in the ESA program. It is well known that students participating in private school choice programs similar to ESAs have experienced benefits like higher educational attainment rates, test scores, and civic values. However, too often, the benefits for students who stay in traditional public schools are overlooked as many believe the creation of private school choice programs hurts public education. But this claim couldn’t be further from the truth. When competition is introduced, public schools step up their game.

A recent analysis from the Cascade Policy Institute, a think tank in Oregon, found the competitive pressure of public schools losing students and the funding tied to their education to another educational provider increases performance from public schools. In over three dozen studies researching the impact of private school choice programs on public school performance in the last two decades, only two found any adverse effects. Other analyses looking at only Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) have reported that 25 of the 28 studies find a positive and statistically significant impact of private school choice on public school students’ test scores.

Undoubtedly, ESAs are the gold standard of school choice legislation, offering families the most flexibility for educating their children. Unlike vouchers that only let families purchase a seat in a private school, families can use ESAs on various private educational expenses such as tutoring, books, curriculum resources, and special needs therapies. Tennessee is no exception. But unless policymakers amend their current legislation, ESAs may only be available to a select few.

In legislative sessions to come, Tennessee policymakers who wish to encourage these beneficial effects should expand ESA eligibility to every county in the state — not just Hamilton County. Students in every type of school, both public and private, would stand to benefit. Moreover, no exclusionary law based on one’s home address should hinder a family’s freedom to choose the best educational environment for their child. 

Cooper Conway is a Scholar-in-Residence at the Student Award Center and a contributor at Young Voices, where he focuses on education reform. Follow him on Twitter @CooperConway1.

school choice, National School Choice Week