Live from Music Row Monday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee Director of the American Federation for Children John Patton to the newsmaker line to discuss the advancement of the educational savings account program for families in Shelby and Davidson counties, and how to apply.
Leahy: We welcome to our newsmaker line right now John Patton, who is the Tennessee State Director for American Federation for Children. Good morning, John.
Patton: Hey, Michael Patrick, it’s very good to be with you today, sir.
Leahy: John, so a new school year here is about to begin. As far as I can tell, the governor’s plan that became law, that established education savings accounts for parents whose children are scheduled to go into failing schools in Shelby County and Davidson County, looks like that is in effect. Have you been tracking that, and how well is that program doing?
Patton: Yes, sir, that’s correct. As you might remember, the law was actually passed in the May 2019 legislative session. It’s been hung up in the courts since then. The Supreme Court of Tennessee freed up the program about four weeks ago, and this past Friday, the election news kind of buried it.
But the courts rejected a final injunction against the program. So, officially, as of this Friday, the program can go out … it can start. We can start enrolling kids officially in Davidson and Shelby County.
Leahy: Well, that sounds great. It’s a good move forward. The question is now how many parents in Shelby County and Davidson County have requested to be part of the program, and tell us a little bit about the details of what happens in this program.
Patton: Absolutely. Yes. When the Supreme Court ruled that the program was constitutional, that was July 13th. For the two weeks after that, if you can believe it, almost 2,200 families filled out this intent-to-enroll form. So that’s just families.
The number of kids is going to be more than that, because some of those families have more than one kid. Additionally, over 80 schools expressed interest in participating, and that’s just those two counties.
Leahy: So, let’s step back. When you say over 80 schools expressed an interest in participating, were those private schools? Public schools? How does all this work?
Patton: Yes, sir. Those are private schools. What this program does is it grants somewhere between $7,000 and $8,000 per child to a family for them to be able to send their kid to a school of their choice. So that could be, it could be a private school, or it could be actually home schooling. It could be a pod school, any number of arrangements.
And so a family has to meet a certain number of criteria in order to qualify through the state, and then they would get those dollars, and the dollars could follow the scholars, as we say.
Leahy: So the criteria that a family has to meet has to do with income, is that it? What else do you need?
Patton: Yes, sir, it’s income. Also, you have to be coming from a current Shelby County or Davidson County public school, or you have to be entering kindergarten. So if you’re currently enrolled in a private school in one of those two counties, you can’t actually qualify for the program.
But coming from a current public school, then you could be eligible. And in terms of income requirements, it’s twice the federal free lunch program. So a family of four, that makes less than about $72,000 to $73,000 a year would qualify.
Leahy: Has the school started in Davidson County and Shelby County, or is it about to start?
Patton: Great question. It’s about to start. And the timing on all this, as anybody listening can imagine, is not ideal. Ideally, you have months and months to ramp up this program. But just as the way the courts work and the way things have worked out, we have a matter of weeks.
Typically they’re shuffling around with students in school during the first few weeks of school, but naturally there’s very little time for a lot of these families to find seats. It’s not impossible.
But we’re working alongside the department, which has been working very hard, the department of ed here in Tennessee to get kids enrolled. So that’s what we’re doing.
Leahy: Fast forward to the end of August of these, what, 2,200 families have signed up, are more signing up all along or is there a deadline to apply?
Patton: … No, basically there is none. It’s basically rolling and rolling. But obviously, there’s going to be some natural kind of weeding out because some schools are just not going to accept applications past a certain date. But it’s basically up to the individual school to decide how they want to look at those NTCs.
Leahy: If parents here in Davidson County think they qualify, where do they go to sign up?
Patton: Rather than give you the exact website, I would … just say Google “Tennessee ESA program.” That’s the best thing you can do.
Leahy: Tennessee ESA program. All right, I’m Googling it right now as we speak. And there it is. It’s coming up.
Patton: Hit either number one or two.
Leahy: Yes. Okay. It’s right there. Yes, you can see the details of it. There’s an ESA website, and you’re exactly right. It’s esa.tnedu.gov.
And you can go in and you can download an application for students. And then I guess there’s a place to submit that application and then you track it.
Leahy: I guess the problem then becomes, so it’s what, $7,000 or so per student?
Patton: Yes, it’s going to be at least $7,300. We know that it could be closer, up to $8,000.
Leahy: So let’s say the parent goes to esa.tnedu.gov, and they fill out the form. Do they proactively, then go out and say, I’d like private school X or private school whatever here in Nashville. That’s where I’d like to go. Do they go to the admissions department there and say, we’d like our child to enroll in your program?
Patton: Great question. So that’s certainly one thing that they can do. I don’t think there’s a spot on that website right now, that’s sort of the clearinghouse that shows all of the schools that have expressed interest and have kind of registered with the state.
But if that list isn’t there now, it’ll be up there shortly. But certainly, private schools and independent schools in both counties are very much aware of the program.
And if a parent did contact them, then they definitely would get a sense of whether or not that school was going to participate or not. Again, this is all happening fast.
Listen to the interview:
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