Editor’s note: In this opinion piece, Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee state director of American Federation for Children, and Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, explain how the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision to take up an education savings account case would create a win for both parents and school systems. The piece appeared recently in The Tennessean.
On Thursday, the Tennessee Supreme Court accepted the widely publicized Education Savings Accounts—or ESA—case.
In 2019, the state Legislature offered a lifeline to families in our worst-performing school districts. They passed the ESA program, which would allow parents to take a portion of the dollars we already spend on their child’s education and use those dollars to send their child to a school of their choice.
Almost immediately, the city of Nashville and Shelby County sued the state to stop parents from utilizing this important program.
While lower courts sided with these local governments, we are optimistic that the Supreme Court will reverse those lower courts and allow the program to launch this fall.
Even before COVID-19, many families struggled to access a quality education in these two school districts. Fast forward to the current school year where nearly 200,000 students lack access to school buildings and tens of thousands haven’t been able to access the admittedly second-class online environment.
If they weren’t fortunate enough to be zoned into a good school or one that was open for in-person instruction, they were out of luck. Unlike families with means, lower-income families can’t just pick up and move to a better school district, nor can they afford private school tuition to send their child to a school of their choice. They are completely stuck.
We must do better.
The ESA program would be the great equalizer for these families. Regardless of their ZIP code or how much money they make, parents in Memphis and Nashville would finally have options. They could get their children into the school that best serves their needs by simply allowing the money to follow them to the school of their choice.
Yet, local government leaders are more concerned about money than fixing their schools or even allowing those most in need to leave for better schools. They chose to stand at the schoolhouse door, this time to keep these families in the schools they have failed to improve decade after decade.
Despite their claims, research shows that these local governments would save money under the ESA program. When a child leaves with an ESA, the public school district no longer has the expense of educating that child, but the program would still let the district keep a portion of the funding.
A recent Beacon Center study — using data reported by the school districts themselves — found that Nashville would save $500 each time a student left with an ESA. Shelby County would save an even greater $2,000 per child.
When the program is fully up and running, that translates into an additional $21 million these two districts would save. Metro Nashville Public Schools could add 65 classroom teachers or pay its existing teachers $670 a year more as a result. Shelby County Schools, meanwhile, could hire an additional 310 teachers or give each of its current teachers a $2,900 raise.
Fortunately, courts in nearly a dozen other states and the United States Supreme Court have found programs like Tennessee’s to be constitutional.
The state Supreme Court can now affirm the legislature’s authority to extend this lifeline to families by ruling that the Tennessee ESA program is in fact constitutional. And if they do so, thousands of families in dire need of a better education will finally have the options they deserve.