Adopting Options: How Tennessee Can Expand Educational Choice to Every Student

February 5, 2024 9:24AM

Over the past few years, educational choice programs that allow students to use a portion of their education dollars to attend schools that best fit their needs have experienced sweeping changes. By 2023, dozens of states had educational choice programs and ten states enacted universal or near-universal universal choice legislation, affording educational options to every student. Now, millions of children nationwide have the option to attend the school of their choice.

While Tennessee does have a limited choice program in certain geographic areas (with an approval rating of over 90 percent), lawmakers have been reluctant to provide the same educational freedom to all Volunteer State students. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, parents became more aware of what traditional public education looks like today, whether it was the curriculum, virtual learning, the numerous openings and closures of schools, or the inability to cater to children’s individual needs, parents began looking for other options while public schools nationwide were closed but still received $190 billion in relief payments from the federal government.

The actions of these traditional public schools and local school boards made parents realize that a “take it or leave it” education system did not best serve their children, and began to vote in droves for candidates who support school choice. This has led 10 states, so far, to answer parent-led calls for reform and create universal options. If Tennessee wants to keep its position as an attractive state for parents of school-age children, lawmakers need to match the efforts of other states that have given every student the option to attend a school that fits his or her unique needs.

Beacon’s newest report Adopting Options: How Tennessee Can Expand Educational Choice to Every Student highlights the benefits of education choice, policies from other states who have passed universal choice legislation, and provides recommendations to policymakers on how to offer these options to every Tennessee student. Some key findings of the report include:

—Since passing the limited Education Savings Accounts (ESA) program in 2019, Tennessee has been surpassed by 10 states that have offered educational choice to all or nearly all students in their state.

— The current geographically limited ESA program in the Volunteer State provides some of the highest value compared to universal-choice states. Expanding the same value to all students through a universal program would place Tennessee as a leader in universal educational choice programs.

— Seven out of 10 Tennesseans expressed a desire to expand an educational choice program statewide to all students according to a Beacon poll of over 1,300 Tennesseans.

— Further increasing options and adding accountability can be done in a similar fashion to Utah’s universal program, which allows students to combine part-time public school enrollment with a partial-value ESA.

— By making ESA students and homeschooling legally distinct, like Florida’s program, Tennessee can allow “home based” students to use a portion of their education tax dollars while ensuring traditional homeschooling families can continue to operate as they wish.