Parental choice or public school killer: Tennessee ESA debate continues

Published 11:06 am Thursday, December 7, 2023

THE CENTER SQUARE

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement he plans to push for statewide educational savings accounts in Tennessee has set up the expected debate on the validity of the plan.

Opponents, including some Tennessee school superintendents, have said ESAs will undercut public education funding in the state.

School choice advocates say the ESA program is funded separately from public education and public education funding isn’t set to decrease so public schools won’t be receiving less funding.

Corey DeAngelis, a self-described school choice evangelist, wrote a policy paper along with Political Economy Research Institute at Middle Tennessee State University stating no connection has been shown between increased public-school spending and school performance.

DeAngelis’ paper states expanding parents’ access to public charter schools and private school ESAs could provide an incentive for public schools to use K-12 education dollars wisely.

“The scientific evidence suggests that increasing access to public charter schools and private school choice programs could provide substantial economic benefits associated with improvements in and educational achievement and attainment,” DeAngelis wrote. “For example, doubling the number of students in public charter schools in the state is expected to produce an additional $1.2 billion in economic benefits associated with higher lifetime earnings.”

Tennessee state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, believes the policy paper is suspect and advocacy for DeAngelis’ cause.

“I read it,” Yarbro wrote on social media. “This shouldn’t have made it through a legitimate academic review. It’s hackery. No real research. It’s more a summary of studies of studies. Even then, it goes out of its way to rely on older, largely discredited research and discount more recent conflicting data.”

Lee’s full plan has not been released, meaning many of the details remain unknown. The proposal that was released includes up to 20,000 ESAs worth $7,075 next school year before that cap is removed.

That means a $141.5 million cost in the first year with the second year and recurring cost afterward unknown.

“Here’s the state budget issue (even if you like the idea of vouchers),” Yarbro wrote. “Paying $7,075 for every student in private school or registered home school today would cost over $790 million annually – not $141.5 million. That’s if zero kids in public schools today use a voucher.”

The Tennessee Department of Education has requested $260 million in increased funding for public schools through the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement next fiscal year including an estimated $125 million for teacher minimum pay increases across the state.

But the state is also considering cutting ties with federal funding over concerns about federal requirements attached to an estimated $1.1 billion in annual federal funding.

And both TISA and the ESA program are recurring funds that will be part of the overall Tennessee budget at a time when tax collections in the state have leveled off and therefore the state budget has too.