A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Tennessee’s New Education Savings Account (ESA) Program
August 30, 2022
Scholarships are now available for some Tennessee students who switch from public schooling to private schools. The flexible new Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) program provides approximately $7,000 per year in private school tuition assistance, and assistance for other education expenses, for eligible students who have been accepted into the program. The program is limited to 5,000 students from lower-income families who are zoned to attend schools in Memphis and Nashville. Learn more on the state’s website at: https://esa.tnedu.gov.
Program eligibility is limited to:
Students who are entering Kindergarten or will be in 1st through 12th grade and are zoned to attend public schools in Memphis (Shelby County) and Nashville;
Students who are enrolling in Tennessee schools for the first time, or who attended Tennessee public school for a full school year last year; and
Students who live in a household that receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or are homeless or who live in a household with an income that does not exceed twice the federal income eligibility guidelines for free lunch. (For example, a student in a family of four with an income of $36,075 qualifies for free lunch; a student in a family of four with an income double that amount, $72,150, qualifies for the ESA).
The total number of scholarships that will be awarded is capped at 5,000. Parents can only receive funding through the ESA program if, after applying in and being accepted to the program, they then demonstrate that their child has actually enrolled in a private school.
Parents are required to complete and mail a paper application to participate in the Tennessee ESA program. The application requires parents to provide:
Proof of income eligibility by demonstrating that the family receives TANF, or by providing a photocopy of the parent’s federal income tax return;
Proof of address, including photocopies of two the following documents: a valid and unexpired driver’s license or state identification card, a property tax receipt from last year, a signed current lease agreement, a utility bill that isn’t more than three months old, a voter registration card, or a notarized affidavit from a landlord that was signed within the past 30 days;
The student’s name, date of birth, and grade;
The name, phone number, date of birth, and social security number of the parent; and
Information regarding where the student attended school during the 2021-22 school year;
ESA Program Terms and Conditions:
As part of the application, parents must agree to the terms and conditions of the ESA program. For example, parents must agree to have their incomes and addresses verified and agree to use the ESA funds for state-approved purposes, as described below. In addition, parents must agree to terminate any Individualized Education Program (IEP) their child may have and waive their rights to special education and related services.
Use of Funds:
The Tennessee ESA program will cover up to approximately $7,000 in tuition and expenses per year. For the first year of the program, most of the paperwork regarding the ESA program will be handled by private schools enrolling ESA program participants, and by the Tennessee Department of Education (the Department). Specifically: once a student is accepted into the ESA program by the Department and enrolls at a qualifying private school, the participating private school will invoice the Department for the student’s tuition and education expenses.
ESA funds can be used for tuition and fees, school uniforms, textbooks, summer education programs, specialized after school education programs, tutoring services, transportation, education therapies, and computers and technology.
In the future, the Department plans to administer the program using an online ESA management portal.
Other Participation Steps:
If more than 5,000 students apply for scholarships, students will be selected for the program through a process called an “enrollment lottery.” This process will prioritize, in this order: students who have siblings in the program; students who are zoned to attend a school that is in the lowest 5 percent of schools in Tennessee, in terms of student academic achievement; and students who are eligible for “direct certification status,” which means they are eligible for the free lunch program. If scholarships are remaining after students in these priority categories are served, remaining scholarships will be awarded at random.
Considerations for Parents:
We offer the following recommendations for families interested in pursuing the program:
Tennessee’s ESA program is like a private school voucher or scholarship program, except that it covers more than just tuition. Like a voucher program, parents need to complete pre-enrollment paperwork to enroll their children. Some of this paperwork may initially appear complicated, but the state’s website provides helpful information and a parent-focused webinar. Once students are enrolled in the ESA program, the student’s new school will then handle most of the post-enrollment paperwork, such as invoicing and billing the Department for expenses, thus reducing the paperwork burden on parents. Parents should, however, keep and maintain copies of this paperwork to ensure that their child’s ESA account is being billed correctly.
Before starting any application or gathering the required paperwork, parents should check out the list of participating private schools, evaluate whether they would meet their children’s needs, and inquire whether these schools have seats available. Parents should note that at the time this guide was written, all but one or two of the schools that have applied and been accepted to participate in the program are faith-based schools.
The program provides for significant flexibility for families. In addition to covering a variety of expenses, including tuition, the program also allows parents to easily transfer their children to another participating private school; to switch their children back to public schooling, if they change their minds, without paying a penalty; and to use any remaining ESA funds that have accumulated in the student’s account, once a student graduates from high school, for college expenses.
More questions about education options in Tennessee? Explore our roadmap to school choice in Tennessee across traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.
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