Fact Checking Claims on Education Freedom Scholarships


February 7, 2024 3:04PM

During his State of the State address earlier this week, Governor Bill Lee outlined his proposed program to offer every Tennessee family a voice in their child’s education. The program, dubbed Education Freedom Scholarships, would provide around $7,000 for a student to attend a school of their choice as well as pay for other approved educational expenses, like tutoring, therapies, and textbooks. Such educational choice programs that offer the same opportunities to every student is not unusual, in fact, there are 10 states that currently offer universal or near-universal choice programs, and many more proposing similar legislation.

Despite the well-studied benefits of educational choice programs and a recent poll showing that nearly seven out of 10 Tennesseans support the program, a loud but small number of activists perpetually interrupted and yelled at the governor when he spoke of the program. They have also been joined by some center-left politicians who have panned the proposal. So what really is the program about and what will it do?

Claim: Education Freedom Scholarships are a “voucher scam.”

Education Freedom Scholarships would be a form of Educational Savings Accounts, or ESAs. Unlike a traditional voucher program, ESAs are not directed to participating schools but instead are towards parents and students. ESA students are able to use their scholarship on a multitude of approved education options beyond private school tuition, giving parents a true voice in their child’s education. Even with some saying this program will direct money to “evangelical hedge fund schools” (a statement that reaches the levels of the wildest conspiracy theories), ESAs do not direct any funding to specific schools, but they give families the ability to spend a portion of their education dollars on educational options that best fit the student.

Claim: School choice defunds public education.

Despite the dozens of school choice programs in existence, public schools still exist, with even bigger budgets than ever before. Tennessee has made historic investments in public education in recent years with many public schools still producing below-average results. To go even further to protect current public education funding, Education Freedom Scholarships will be funded outside of the education funding formula. (As an aside, even if they were funded via the funding formula, the proposed $7,000 a year is only a portion of the total amount spent on each child, which averages over $12,000 per student statewide.) No one claims money going to roads or state parks “defunds” public education, yet detractors are now claiming funding outside the school funding formula will defund public schools.

Claim: This program does not include accountability.

While the program’s specifics for standardized testing have yet to be finalized as it moves through the legislative process, ESAs provide immense accountability. If a school or educational provider is not meeting a student’s needs, parents can take their child, and their education dollars, to another provider. In contrast, when a traditional public school fails students, they are often given more taxpayer dollars as a result. Further, virtually all–if not all–accredited or recognized private schools that would participate in this program administer high-quality testing comparable to the state’s TNReady exam.

Claim: This program will only benefit rich families.

Wealthy families already have school choice. Families with the means to send their child to an elite private school or to uproot their life to move to a district with better schools have always had these options. This program would simply help families who are not as fortunate give their child a better education. There are also numerous families around the state who struggle to make ends meet in order to send their child to an affordable independent school. This was on display when Iowa passed a statewide ESA program. Those families who took an ESA program while having a student already enrolled in private school had an income less than half of those public school students who took an ESA.

Claim: School choice does not help students.

Nearly 190 empirical studies have been conducted on school choice programs, and 84 percent have found positive effects. These include positive effects on educational attainment, fiscal impact, parental satisfaction, racial integration, and even improvement in traditional public schools due to competition. Arguably most insightful is that for Tennessee’s current geographically limited school choice program, 91% of parents are “very satisfied” with the program.

Claim: School choice hurts rural communities.

On one hand, critics claim there are no private options for rural students, so ESAs won’t work in their communities. On the other hand, they claim ESAs will bankrupt rural schools. Both can’t be true, and unsurprisingly, neither are. If there are no private options for rural students, then no ESAs will be used and the status quo remains the same. But many rural communities have quality private schools or are considering establishing them if this program passes. Like with other state’s ESA programs, some families will utilize those new options, while others will remain content in their existing public school like they are today.

Giving parents and students options when it comes to education should not be a hot-button topic. If public schools are meeting the needs of students, there is no reason to worry over any student looking for a better educational option. Though struggling public schools have been addressed for decades and must continue to be improved, the status quo of simply throwing more money at the problem has not benefited students in any meaningful way. The next best step for Tennessee to take is to empower parents with choice and give them a real voice in their child’s education.