Senate approves Pilot Education Savings Account legislation providing choice to parents of low income students in the state’s lowest performing schools
The Senate gave final approval to legislation establishing a Pilot Education Savings Account (ESA) program to serve low-income students zoned to public schools in Metro Nashville, Shelby County and the state’s Achievement School District (ASD). Senate Bill 795, which is part of a package of bills proposed by Governor Bill Lee to improve education opportunities for students, focuses on providing parental choice in school districts which have the state’s highest concentration of poverty and priority schools. Priority schools are the schools in Tennessee which are the most in need of support and improvement. The proposal also invests in priority schools by ensuring there will be no loss of funding for the school district in which the student leaves.
In addition to being zoned in qualifying districts, eligible students must have a household income at or below twice the federal guidance to be eligible for free and reduced lunch. Parents must certify eligibility by submitting pay stubs, W-2 forms or other official documents showing evidence of income every three years. The students must also have been enrolled in a Tennessee school for the previous year or be entering kindergarten.
The amount of the education savings account would vary by district but would be approximately $7,300 per student.
The scholarship program establishes controlled growth caps of 5,000 students in year one and 7,500 in year two. If the caps reach 75 percent of capacity in a year, then they would adjust upward by 2,500 students in the following year, with a total maximum cap for the program of 15,000.
The savings account can be used at category one, two, and three non-public schools which are on the list approved by the Department of Education. Homeschooling is also allowed if the student participates in an umbrella program approved by the Department of Education which employs accountability standards. Other students participating in the program must also be tracked by taking the Math and English/Language Arts state tests to measure year-to-year growth. If the schools or providers are not providing student achievement results, the Department of Education can remove them from the program. In addition, an annual report on the program’s progress will be generated and reported publicly for greater transparency.
Fraud protection measures are also in place under the state’s current Individualized Education Account (IEA) Program, with more protections incorporated in the bill to guard against abuse. IEA is a school choice program enacted in 2015 for eligible students with disabilities which allows parents to choose opportunities which best meets their child’s unique needs.