I have two children. One thrives in the spotlight. The other wants to know how everything works. Right now they attend the same public school. It works for both of them. But if one day my tinkerer needs more hands-on learning or my orator wants to accelerate her path to college, we have choices.
In Hamilton County we have 60 different school choices beyond the one my children are zoned to attend. In fact, by enrolling them in a magnet school, we've already exercised our privilege of choice. Beyond that, if we made some sacrifices, we could move our children to a private school — or even homeschool them. As a middle-class family we have so many choices. And we like it that way.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee likes choices too. He wants to give low-income students "stuck" in low-performing schools the choice to trade their public education for money to attend a private school. At first glance, the Education Savings Account bill (SB 795/HB939) sounds like it could open up a world of opportunity for historically underserved students and families.
But will it? Will this new voucher program — estimated to cost Hamilton County taxpayers $26.5 million annually when the program reaches capacity (and the school system $54.1 million annually in lost funding) — create real choice for those children who need it most?
As we work to expand education choice options in Tennessee, we should evaluate every proposed policy on the basis of whether it provides a credible choice for all students to receive a quality education. Let's ensure that our policies and legislation bring greater inclusion, particularly for those who have few credible choices now.
An ESA voucher in Hamilton County will be worth about $6,785 after the state's 6% fee. Chattanooga's average private elementary school tuition is about $9,500. Middle and high school private tuition averages around $14,000 annually. That's just tuition and does not include uniforms, technology, transportation, and sometimes not even lunch.
So will a $6,785 voucher really afford a low-income child in a low-performing school in Hamilton County the chance to attend a quality private school? Maybe, if our community works hard to make it happen. But here's the rub: this new bill doesn't require families to be low income. It doesn't require that a child attend a low-performing school. (In fact, with the most recent amendment, a family of four can have an income of $66,950. Average Hamilton County income is $47,000.)
With this bill as it now written, low-income urban children unfortunately will likely be excluded from this new choice opportunity. Should Hamilton County taxpayers write multimillion-dollar private tuition checks for a small group of middle-class students, like mine, who have numerous education choices already?
Are we comfortable spending those large sums with minimal accountability for academic progress or fiscal responsibility?
What if those dollars stay in Hamilton County? We could use them to create realistic, high-quality choices for all Hamilton County students. Transportation is high on my list so students are able to attend a higher performing school. That is a choice fulfilled.
Of the 60 current choice options in Hamilton County Schools, we provide transportation to just 13 of those programs. Imagine the opportunity we open up for children in every part of our community if students had access to our 25 Future Ready Institutes, our two International Baccalaureate programs, our three Early College programs, and our seven open enrollment schools.
Hamilton County Schools is dedicated to being the fastest-improving school district in Tennessee. Great things are happening, and every student deserves an opportunity to make a choice to attend the school that best meets their needs. Let's advocate for real choice for all students. It's what's best for kids.
Jenny Hill is a member of the Hamilton County Board of Education. Contact her at Hill_Jenny@HCDE.org.