There have been 10 analyses of random assignment studies conducted on scholarship programs and all but one has shown statistically significant results in math and/or reading achievement for students who receive a scholarship.1 Of the 10, six found statistically significant improvement overall for scholarship students; three of the studies showed significant improvement for a specific subgroup of students (e.g., African American, low-income, etc.); and one study found that students who used a scholarship did no better or worse than if they had not received a scholarship. Aside from student achievement, scholarship programs have had statistically significant positive results on high school graduation rates, college enrollment levels, and parent satisfaction.
School choice is not a magic bullet to solving the challenges that face our education system but it is clearly a tool that, along with other education reforms, can have a significant impact on a child's education and opportunities later in life.
As far as performance is concerned for students who remain in the traditional public schools, there are no random assignment studies that exist to show the effect of a scholarship program; however, Greg Forster from the Foundation for Educational Choice reviewed 19 studies that sought to adequately answer this question. According to his research, all but one showed statistically significant gains in student performance for the students who stayed in the traditional public schools.6
While this is a common argument against a program of this type, the cost of educating the child is shifted from the public school to the school participating in the program and now educating the student. Additionally, the state has committed an additional $47 million over three years to schools in the bottom five percent. Far from draining resources, we are providing these schools with additional resources to serve their students.
Despite claims to the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly ruled on this subject – rejecting a challenge of the Cleveland, Ohio, school voucher program in 2002 and holding that a publicly funded program may include both religious and non-religious options without violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The key is religious neutrality, which is accomplished under the Tennessee Choice & Scholarship Act by providing parents, not the government, with the choice. Likewise, there is nothing in the Tennessee Constitution to prohibit the type of program authorized by the Tennessee Choice & Scholarship Act.
The most recent data on Tennessee's private schools reveal that two-thirds of the state's nonpublic schools are located outside of the four largest cities (Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga).
The following map provides a diagram of the number of private schools within each Tennessee county. In the counties with more than 20 private schools, the number of private school students is indicated.
In 2012, the Beacon Center of Tennessee conducted two surveys of Tennessee's nonpublic schools, which can be found in their entirety in the Task Force on Opportunity Scholarship's report. The two surveys went out to the 561 private schools in the state. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said they would participate in a scholarship program if enacted by the state and another 26 percent said they would consider participation.
As far as the price of private schools is concerned, more than half of the schools that responded to the survey charge less than $5,500 for elementary and middle grades and less than $6,300 for high school. Additionally, of the responding schools, 87 percent indicated that they have students who receive some form of tuition assistance, and 73 percent said they would participate even if the scholarship covered only 90 percent of the cost to educate a student.
Under the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act, students must be in a low-income household and be in the state's lowest-performing schools to qualify for a scholarship. The idea that schools could skim off the top of this population of students—whose average proficiency rates in the core subjects are less than 15 percent—is hard to imagine. With that said, there is also no research to support that claim, as demonstrated in the 19 studies referenced in Myth #2. Additionally, in a recent study from Florida, the students who used a scholarship to enroll in a private school tended to have lower standardized test scores than their free-and-reduced-lunch peers while still in the public schools.7
Private schools that participate in this scholarship program will not receive federal special education funds that public schools do. While this might place limitations on the services they can provide, it is hard to make the argument that this program is "unfair" to special education students when it gives those students and families a choice they otherwise would not have. Additionally, the program will require private schools to provide parents with information on which services they can offer so that families can make an informed decision about where their child will best be served.
Critics also argue that private schools that participate in choice programs exclude most special education students. A recent study on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) discovered that—contrary to what had been stated in the past—as many as 14 percent of MPCP students had a disability that would categorize them as a special education student in the public schools. The researchers found that the original published rate of 1.6 percent was due in large part to the fact that private schools are less likely to identify children as having disabilities, because they have no financial incentive to do so and it often causes stigmatization.8
At its maximum size, this program will serve roughly 2% of students in our public schools—far from a pervasive program. The Governor and his administration support options for students and families and remain committed to our public schools where the overwhelming majority of our students are served. In fact, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Tennessee is one of only 14 states to see an increase in public education spending per student since Governor Haslam has taken office. In addition, the Governor has enhanced his commitment to public education in his budget for next year by adding more than $112 million to the state's education funding formula, including $36 million for teacher compensation and $34 million for capital improvements. The Governor is also proposing a $51 million investment to enhance instructional technology in public schools across the state. This program is about giving an opportunity to low-income students in our lowest-performing schools that they otherwise would not have.