After Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee proposed statewide education savings accounts (ESAs), many state policymakers and special interest groups quickly expressed their opposition. For instance, JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators for Tennessee, claimed the state doesn’t need ESAs because there are “other options available to allow parents to have public school choice.”
But Bowman left out an important fact: Students aren’t guaranteed free access to public schools because Tennessee’s public school districts can charge non-resident transfer students out-of-pocket tuition.
For example, Oak Ridge County School District is charging students who live outside its boundaries as much as $8,484 per new enrollee during the 2023-24 school year. Collierville Schools, Arlington Community Schools, and Williamson County Public Schools also charge tuition to students transferring to their public schools.
While some families can foot the bill, public school tuition can be an insurmountable barrier to many students. In these cases, public school choice is only available to those who can afford it. Tennessee should ban the charging of tuition to public school transfer students and allow students to transfer to any public school with open seats.
Open enrollment allows public school students to attend any public school with openings, and education savings accounts would combine to provide students and parents with significantly better options than the status quo.
Currently, education savings accounts can’t be used to pay for public school tuition in Tennessee. Scholarship recipients can use them to pay for private school tuition and other approved education expenses. ESAs would expand the education marketplace, letting students vote with their feet.
Only students living in Nashville Metro, Shelby, and Hamilton counties are eligible for the state’s ESA pilot program. This year, 2,000 students received ESAs valued at more than $7,000. If Gov. Lee’s proposed expansion becomes law, 20,000 students statewide could get an ESA at the beginning of the 2024 school year. Eligibility would expand to all students in the Volunteer State by 2025.
This expansion would be a boon to students dissatisfied with their assigned public school, letting them find schools that better fit them.
But school choice also helps students who stay in traditional public schools. Education researchers David Figlio, Cassandra M. D. Hart, and Krzysztof Karbownik traced the effects of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, which lets students attend the private school of their choice over 15 years, finding that it positively affected students’ academic performance and behavior in traditional public schools.
“Our analysis finds consistent evidence that, as the scholarship program scaled up, academic and behavioral outcomes improved for students attending traditional public schools. More specifically, we find that students attending schools with more competitive pressure made larger gains as program enrollment grew statewide than did students at schools with less market competition,” the authors wrote in Education Next.
While these positive effects appear modest on an annual basis, cumulatively, the study found a notable impact on students’ academic performance on math and reading test scores. The schools where students improved the most were often already lower-performing, showing that competitive pressures can narrow achievement gaps.
Significantly, these positive effects were more pronounced when schools faced greater competition, especially for low-income students. At the same time, these competitive pressures also positively impacted the test scores of affluent students, showing that the benefits reached everyone.
The researchers found that a 10 percent increase in students using increased “reading scores by 0.7 percent of a standard deviation and math scores by 0.3 percent of a standard deviation, as compared to schools facing less competition.”
They also found that as the program scaled up, there were positive effects on student behaviors. Specifically, the rate of student suspensions or absences also declined in public schools. In fact, the number of suspensions and absentee students began to statistically significant decline in 2006 and 2009, respectively. The increased competition between private and public schools created a ripple effect, encouraging public schools to improve.
Other school sectors also show the positive effects of competition. For instance, some California public schools responded to competitive pressures after losing residentially assigned students through that state’s open enrollment policies. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the school districts losing students improved their instructional offerings to retain students.
Tennessee policymakers should let students use ESAs to attend the private school of their choice while also adopting robust cross-district open enrollment laws that allow kids to transfer and prevent public school districts from charging transfer students tuition.
Robust school choice programs aren’t the death knell for public schools. Rather, they’re a sign of vitality where schools are more responsive to students’ needs. Students, teachers, and public schools can all benefit from open enrollment and education savings accounts.
Without these reforms, Tennessee’s education marketplace will remain largely stagnant to the detriment of public and private school students. Robust public and private school choice policies can be part of a rising tide that can lift all boats.