It’s Time for Tennessee: Double-Digit States Offer Universal Education Freedom


May 22, 2024 12:47PM

Following a landmark year for education freedom, the first few months of 2024 saw dozens of school choice programs introduced, debated, and voted on across the country. Despite Tennessee not joining the growing list of states to get a universal program passed this year, other states went all-in on education freedom. Alabama became the 11th state to pass a universal school choice program, providing every student with new educational opportunities. Georgia and Wyoming passed Education Savings Account (ESA) programs, Missouri expanded its ESA, and Nebraska passed its first school choice program, in addition to the optimism of universal programs passing in South Carolina and Louisiana.

While states are adopting different programs based on their tax structure, demographics, and targeted student populations, the central thread that ties choice programs together is giving students new educational opportunities.

ESAs have become the main driver of providing educational opportunities to students. These programs provide the most flexibility, allowing a portion of per-pupil education dollars to go towards tuition, tutoring, therapies, and a multitude of other education expenses. Scholarship programs, sometimes referred to as vouchers, work in a similar fashion on funding, but are restricted to be used at participating non-public schools. A third option comes in the form of tax credits/deductions, whether for ESAs (where students receive ESAs through a non-profit for educational expenses), scholarships for non-public schools, or individual tax credits or deductions, the largest of which is Oklahoma, providing up to $7,500 in tax credits for every child.

Though some in the media and state legislature portrayed choice policy proposals as wild plans reaching the level of conspiracy, school choice is not some fringe idea. It is a widely accepted and studied policy, with 84 percent of studies showing positive effects. These effects include increased test scores for both participating students and public schools, higher educational attainment, positive fiscal effects, and increased lifetime earnings for participants. Arguably the most telling fact was a recent survey in Tennessee showing 99 percent of parents were satisfied with the state’s geographically limited ESA program.

Considering parental satisfaction, the fact that Tennessee does not impose an income tax, and education funds should provide the most flexibility for parents and students, tax credits and scholarship programs should be put aside for a universal ESA program. Such a policy would provide every child in the Volunteer State with educational opportunities that are currently not available simply because of their geographic location or family income.

With dozens of states providing choice programs and a growing number providing the same options to all students, Tennessee policymakers must make a choice. Either give all families the same opportunities or keep the status quo and let Tennessee continue to be leapfrogged by more and more states who are returning power to parents and giving them a real choice in their child’s education.