Sign up for newsletter >>
ESAs in Tennessee should go Universal
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

ESAs in Tennessee should go Universal

A new era of educational freedom is near at hand for America’s K-12 system. 

Mere weeks ago, North Carolina passed one of the country’s largest Education Savings Account (ESA) programs. In doing so, North Carolina also became the ninth state to embrace universal accessibility, expanding educational choice to every student in the state. To ensure educational liberty continues to expand, more states need to adopt this model. 

Tennessee is one of many states playing from behind on this issue, missing from list of states that have a Universal ESA program. In this upcoming legislative session, state policymakers should change this by making every child in Tennessee eligible to receive an ESA for their educational needs. 

Currently, Tennessee’s ESA Program empowers a majority of families to use the funds designated for their child’s education on various private educational services such as tutoring, tuition, and special needs therapies. Still, Tennessee’s ESA program remains out of reach for nearly 40 percent of families in the state. This is largely a result of policymakers limiting ESA accessibility to certain families trapped in historically underperforming school districts.

For instance, students in Madison County lack access to the ESA program entirely. This inaccessibility forces nonprofits such as the Student Award Center to step in and provide as many privately funded scholarships as possible for students who want to access a better educational environment. 

Cesar Cano was one of these students. In the 2021 school year, Cesar Cano attended his assigned public school for first grade and succeeded academically. But his lack of social development worried his parents, who found that Cesar had been increasingly exposed to an environment composed of foul language, bullying, and inappropriate discussions among classmates. 

Cesar’s mother, Mary, started looking for other options and eventually received a scholarship from the Student Award Center to send him to St. Mary’s Catholic School.  The environment there is better suited to Cesar’s temperament, meeting his social needs without compromising on academic excellence. Mary feels Cesar has significantly improved his behavior and social skills; he is now surrounded by friends and enjoys school while maintaining his previous high academic performance. 

Stories like Cesar Cano’s highlight the need for ESA universality as, unfortunately, private scholarships are not available for most students. Furthermore, Cesar’s story personalizes the polling EdChoice has done regarding how families choose their schools. 

It’s a common misconception in education that parents select their child’s school based primarily on academic quality. However, EdChoice polling has found that there are many more salient reasons that determine how families choose schools, including “how safe of an environment the school provides” and “what the other students are like.” 

Many advocates, including Tennessee, only champion ESAs for their academic benefits. Nevertheless, families’ reasons for participating in ESA programs transcend academics. Moving forward, Tennessee’s state policymakers would be wise to recognize the multitude of reasons that make 69% of Tennessee Voters — according to the Beacon Center’s July 2023 poll — support the ESA program being expanded statewide. 

Supporting education freedom should be a no-brainer for state policymakers. Expanding educational freedom not only aligns with constituents’ desires, helping them win re-election, but it also can decrease barriers for a generation of students and families hoping to find a better educational alternative. In the next legislative session, Tennessee policymakers can make this a reality by universally providing access to ESAs. This would help set the state up to compete on the national level for education excellence so every student can feel championed by the state they call home.

Cooper Conway is a William E. Simon National Policy Fellow at 50CAN, a Scholar-in-Residence at the Student Award Center, and a contributor at Young Voices, where he focuses on education reform. Follow him on Twitter @CooperConway1.