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Last Upated: June 21, 2022
Each spring, parents face one of the biggest decisions they can make for their child’s future: What school environment will their child will spend about 1,000 hours in next year?
Making that decision with confidence starts with knowing what options you have; you may have more school choices than you realize! Understanding these options can help you find a school where your child grows and learns to the best of their ability. Tennessee families can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, homeschooling, and learning pods.
Looking for special education options? You can learn what special education services are available in Tennessee at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.
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Most Tennessee families choose traditional public schools, which are operated by school districts, free to attend, open to all students, and funded by taxpayers. Did you know that, on average, Tennessee spends $9,866 per public school student each year?
Tennessee has more than 1,700 public schools. In Tennessee, a 2021 bill required all school districts to offer an open enrollment period by fall 2022. Open enrollment refers to whether parents can send their children to any public school, regardless of where it is located. This expansion of open enrollment means that parents may be able to transfer their child to any public school, regardless of where they live. If more students apply to a school than there is room for, a lottery may determine acceptance.
Open enrollment is an important way that parents have access to a broader variety of public schools. Find out more about public schools in your state at the Tennessee Department of Education or read about one Tennessee public school’s partnership with the Memphis police department to combat graffiti.
Tennessee has more than 110 public charter schools, many of them in Memphis. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are public, free, and typically have no requirements for entry. What distinguishes charter schools is that they have extra freedom to innovate with learning methods and are accountable to authorizing entities for student results.
Each school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves, whether that be providing a language immersion program or offering a rigorous, literacy-based curriculum. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system (like drawing random names out of a hat!) is usually used to determine admittance.
Tennessee’s first charter school, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, was founded in 2003. Today, Tennessee’s charter schools serve more than 38,000 children. You can learn more about your state’s charter options at the TN Charter School Center.
You can also choose magnet schools! Magnet schools are free public schools that allow kids to narrow in on a specific learning track, such as an International Baccalaureate program or the performing arts. A magnet school teaches all subjects through the lenses of that specific track. Tennessee has several magnet schools. For example, the Hamilton County School District, Knox County School District, Metropolitan Nashville Public School District, Rutherford County School District, and Shelby County School District all offer magnet choices, among others. If your child learns well through diving deeply into a particular subject, a magnet school could be a good fit.
Tennessee families can also choose private schools. These nonpublic schools charge tuition and offer a unique learning environment that may be smaller in size, pass on a specific religious tradition, or provide a different curriculum than is available in your district school.
In Tennessee, students with special needs may be eligible for a publicly funded Individualized Education Account. In 2022, this program was expanded to include students with dyslexia. Also, a pilot program in which Nashville and Memphis students whose families meet certain income guidelines could qualify for a state-funded voucher is in the process of being established. Additional funding may be available from other sources.
Don’t overlook virtual learning, which offers a uniquely flexible learning environment that meets a variety of family needs. Whether your child wants to accelerate learning or needs a quieter, stress-free environment in which to focus, you may be interested in trying online school.
Virtual schools in Tennessee are overseen by school districts. While some virtual schools may be open only to in-district students, others (like Tennessee Virtual Academy and Tennessee Connections Academy) serve students statewide.
As of 2022, Tennessee has more than 50 virtual schools! Schools that are approved to serve all grades K-12 statewide include Bradley County Virtual School (currently serving grades 3-12), Greene Online Academy of Learning (currently serving grades 6-12), Tennessee Online Public School, Hawkins County Virtual Academy, Pioneer Virtual Academy, and Roane County Virtual Academy.
You can find a complete list of TN’s virtual schools, both those that enroll statewide and those designed for local students, on the Tennessee Department of Education. More than 10,000 students in Tennessee used a fully online schooling option in 2020-2021.
Some superintendents say that, while their district always planned to expand to offer an online education option, the COVID-19 pandemic sped up the process. To read more about online learning in Tennessee, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile.
Families can also choose to homeschool. This option allows for high levels of customized learning and flexibility. All 50 states allow homeschooling, the process of parents educating students at home.
In Tennessee, if you are an independent homeschool, it is required that you provide notice of intent to homeschool before the school year or upon choosing homeschool and annually thereafter. Formally withdrawing from public school is required in some districts and recommended for all districts. If you decide to return to public school, your school will assess to determine grade level placement.
While the state doesn’t lay out specific subjects that homeschooling families must teach, it does require that homeschooling students take standardized tests in some grades. Note that homeschooled students in Tennessee may still be eligible to participate in sports or activities at local public schools.
Tennessee offers funding assistance for students with special needs through the Special Needs Individualized Education Account Program.
Micro-schools, pods, pandemic pods, and learning pods all refer to the same concept: students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Pods themselves can take a variety of legal forms, but in general they can be separated into two categories: self-directed pod (homeschool, homeschool collaborative, or micro-school) and learning support pod. It’s important to understand what kind of pod you are signing up for and the requirements that go along with it. Learn more about learning pods.
If your learning pod or micro-school is choosing its own curriculum and each family is directing their own children’s schooling, it likely qualifies as a homeschool in Tennessee. Read more about the requirements for homeschooling and get tips from HSLDA.
If your learning pod contains more than two families and will have parents or other teachers leading unique classes just for your school, it may qualify as a private school. You can read more about what Tennessee classifies as a private school, how they’re regulated, and how to start one.
If your child is enrolled in an existing online school or local public, charter, or private school, and uses that school’s curriculum under the supervision of an adult in a learning pod, you do not need to register as a homeschool or private school.
For additional information about school choice in Tennessee, visit these resources:
National School Choice Week 2023 will take place January 22 – 28, 2023. So, we encourage all schools, homeschool groups, organizations and individuals to join the celebration. Check out ideas, inspiration, and more information!
Tennessee celebrated National School Choice Week 2022 with 447 events and activities across the state. Click the button below to learn more about school choice in Tennessee.
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