Tennessee students in urban cities could start escaping failing schools in fall 2021 as Gov. Bill Lee has pulled the curtain back on his education savings account (ESA) plan, with legislative action planned for Tuesday.
Some say the math does not add up.
Lee would spend up to $75 million in fall 2021, with half going to families whose children transfer to private or other non-public schools and the remainder going to the districts they leave behind, according to a story on Chalkbeat. The ESAs could cost $125 million each year by 2024.
Only 5,000 students would qualify in Year One, Chalkbeat said. Up to 15,000 students could qualify by 2025. One catch is that the failing districts, which are among the 10 percent bottom performers, would only receive the subsidy payments for three years.
The governor briefly addressed ESAs in his first State of the State address March 4, as reported by The Tennessee Star.
The proposal would only be provided to five county school districts: Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Shelby and Madison (including the city of Jackson), The Star reported on March 10. Also included would be the state’s Achievement School District of failing schools, the Chattanooga Times Free Press said.
As The Star previously reported, 5,000 students represent only about one-half of one percent of the state’s 975,000 students. All told, a little more than 314,000 students in those districts are eligible to apply to be among the maximum 5,000 students who can enroll in Year One. Parents would use a debit card loaded with the money to use for tuition or qualified expenses like tutoring.
The $125 million price tag is much more than the $25 million Lee mentioned in his State of the State address, the Associated Press said. If 5,000 students enroll in Year One, that would cost $36.5 million if each received $7,300 as previously specified.
The Daily Memphian reported that $7,300 per student would equal only about 3,400 students in 2020, quoting Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D-TN-21).
Regardless of how many families use the ESA, they must be state residents with incomes below the federal poverty threshold to qualify for lunches that are free or reduced price, the AP said.
Not every child who enrolls in the ESA program will be leaving a public school, The Star said in its March 10 story. Some will be entering kindergarten for the first time. Some will be moving into Tennessee from other states, and some will naturally be moving with their parents from one public school system in Tennessee to another area with a different public school system.
NewsChannel 5 said the state would spread the $75 million allocation evenly out over three years starting in 2019 — the $75 million threshold would be reached in 2021. Only up to 5,000 students will be allowed in during the first year, with 2,500 more being allowed in each year if the maximum is hit in Year Two.
However, NewsChannel 5 quoted “people with the governor’s administration” in saying officials do not believe the initial quota would be met in year one.
Meanwhile, the proposal is moving out of the governor’s office and into the Tennessee General Assembly.
The governor’s proposal is being carried in the Legislature as HB0939 and SB0795.
The House bill has been placed on the Tuesday calendar for the House Education Committee’s Curriculum, Testing, & Innovation Subcommittee.
The bills’ abstract reads, “As introduced, extends, from 10 days to 30 days, the period of time after a local board of education orders a student’s school assignment within which a parent, guardian, or legal representative may apply to the board for a hearing to challenge the reasonableness of the student’s assignment and to request the student’s transfer to another school.”
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Jason M. Reynolds has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist at outlets of all sizes.