Policy Report: The ABCs of school vouchers and what it means for Memphis

In Policy Report, analyst Shirley Bondon dives into new and proposed state, local and national policies and programs affecting Memphians and their communities. In the first two installments, Bondon takes on Tennessee’s new school voucher program, including what leading research says and reflections from local parents and education experts.

Often referred to as Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher program, Lee signed the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program Act into law on May 24.

By the 2021-22 school year, eligible K-12 students enrolled in Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools and the Achievement School District can receive an average of $7,300 annually towards a private school education.

The Tennessean recently reported Lee’s administration is working to implement the school voucher program early in the 2020-21 school year. 

Voucher programs typically only allow funds to be spent on tuition. With Tennessee’s new program, the money is placed in individual education savings accounts or ESAs that parents can use to pay for tuition, as well as basic supplies, technology, tutoring and transportation.

The $7,300 per-student will follow the child from their geographically assigned public school district into their ESA and on to the private school of their choice. 

For and Against

Governor Lee and other proponents of school choice — the use of public dollars towards private schools, homeschooling and other alternative education models — say Tennessee’s new program will save taxpayers money. 

More importantly, they argue it will provide low-income and minority students currently assigned to chronically under-performing public schools with unprecedented access to an array of schooling options more privileged families have long enjoyed. 

Opponents including the Shelby County School Board and Professional Educators of Tennessee say the move will further decrease student performance and the quality of education at already underfunded public school and could create even greater disparities for low-income, minority students and their communities.

They also question whether private schools, whose histories are directly linked to systemic racism in education, can adequately and safely serve students and communities of color.

The second installment of Policy Report will dive further into arguments for and against the program and share reflections from Memphis parents and education experts.

The ABCs of the ESA

The Tennessee ESA program is projected to launch with 5,000 students and increase to a maximum of 15,000 over five years.

Students are eligible if enrolled in an SCS, ASD or MNPS Priority school or eligible to enroll for the first time and if their household income is no more than twice the limit for the federal free school lunch program, which ranges from $42,796 annually to over $110,188 based on family size.

The ESA program guarantees private schools' autonomy over tuition rates, academic rigor, codes of conduct and other standards, which could disqualify some students who meet the state’s minimum qualifications.

To offset the $7,300 per-student loss to the districts, the program includes a three-year improvement fund allocated to affected schools. After three years, those funds will be disbursed to all Priority schools across the state. The final bill signed by Governor Lee stipulates improvement funds are subject to reallocation.

Why Memphis and Nashville?

Why are SCS and Nashville the only two cities in the state affected by the new policy and resulting program? In short, only SCS and MNPS meet lawmakers’ key criteria, which center on large public school districts with high rates of poverty and underperforming schools.

To qualify, a locally-operated district must have 10 or more under-performing schools based on the state’s Priority list and other indicators from 2015 to 2018. ASD is included in the pilot but managed by the State of Tennessee. It oversees 27 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville.

‘Priority’ designates schools lagging in achievement or graduation rates that also receive Title I funding, federal dollars for schools with the highest concentrations of student poverty.

In 2018, Tennessee had 82 Priority schools, 66 of which were in the SCS, MNPS or ASD districts.

SCS and MNPS are the largest public school districts in Tennessee and serve the largest numbers of minority and extremely low-income students.

Memphis and the surrounding counties are home to the vast majority of Black and African American Tennesseans and Nashville’s Davidson County has the second highest concentration, as well as some of the largest populations of Latino and Asian Tennesseans. Thirty-nine percent of Memphis' youth live below the federal poverty line, and many of Nashville’s center-city neighborhoods have youth poverty rates of 60 percent or more.

Evidence and Impact

Research on voucher and ESA programs is largely inconclusive and often conflicting. Many studies show no significant or widespread positive or negative effects on participating students' educational achievement, college enrollment or other success measures.

But when looked at with nuance, there is a growing body of research that shows a student’s individual circumstances play a major role in their potential success. It also shows the students facing the most barriers match the demographics of the majority of students in Memphis who will be eligible for the state's ESA program.

Based on Tennessee's ESA enrollment criteria, a significant portion of eligible SCS students will be severely disadvantaged students of color from communities that have experienced decades of serious disinvestment.

Related: “Seeing Red I: Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis”

Disadvantaged students are more likely to face deficits in skills or proficiencies, cultural differences, inconsistent transportation and costs beyond the ESA or voucher amount. 

Research in urban areas found low-income families, Black families and mothers with less education were more likely to decline vouchers. Another found parents who attended college and two-parent households were more likely to participate.

A 2019 study noted voucher students who struggle to making gains, are frequently tardy or absent, misbehave, wear the wrong clothes or fail to follow social norms are often kicked out of or leave private schools. Students may also feel out of place, misunderstood or unsafe if they are seen as different than the majority of their peers.

The 2019 study also found that moderately disadvantaged students with some familial resources like a reliable vehicle do benefit from voucher programs in terms of graduation rates and college enrollment, but severely disadvantaged students do not.

It's noteworthy that Tennessee's ESA maximum income allowance is high enough that some families considered middle class based on Memphis' average income would be eligible to participate. These are the families that research shows will be more likely to take advantage of voucher programs and better equipped to stay enrolled and see success long-term.

In contrast to the overall conflicting evidence on the success of school choice programs, past and several recent studies have shown increasing public school funding does raise test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment and, in some cases, higher wages post-graduation. The effects were strongest in poverty-heavy school districts like SCS.

Check out the next Policy Report for Part II of the school voucher debate. Follow Shirley on Twitter at @justiceandfaith. Email [email protected] to suggest a policy you’d like to see covered in a future Policy Report.

Read more articles by Shirley Bondon.

Shirley Bondon is a policy analyst focused on programs and projects that inform understanding of social, economic and environmental factors that shape our health, including quality education, affordable and stable housing, access to good jobs with fair pay, safe communities and access to quality medical care.
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