November 27, 2023
This week, Governor Bill Lee is unveiling his plan for a statewide expansion of the 2019 Education Savings Account (ESA) pilot program to offer publicly funded scholarships to eligible students attending private schools.
While many have expressed differing opinions on this issue, some critics have made misdirected attacks on public charter schools, which bear no relevance to the ESA program.
Part of the confusion here may arise from the use of the term “school choice” as a catch-all label for those supporting the ESA and private school voucher programs. Though the term has become a lightning rod for criticism, it is a generalization, and there are finer distinctions within worth unpacking.
Generally, proponents of school choice believe parents should have the right to choose how and where their children receive an education. Some parents may choose their locally zoned public school while others opt for a public charter school, and others still, may prefer private or homeschooling options.
Each of these is a different expression of school choice, but public charter schools are distinct from private options in that they require authorization from state or local governing boards and are subject to oversight and reauthorization hearings. Further, public charter schools are held to the same academic standards as any other public school—those that fail to meet standards can face charter revocation and closure.
Public charter schools have become an increasingly popular choice for parents due to their outcomes-oriented model and emphasis on innovation. Charter administrators have freedom to experiment with new teaching techniques and curriculum delivery, which have contributed to Tennessee charter schools ranking among the top nationally in student growth.
Despite their unique organizational structure and operational freedom, charter schools are undoubtedly public schools. They are non-profit, tuition-free, and they are not religiously affiliated. Public charter schools have nothing to do with the ESA program, yet they have become collateral damage amid the dispute.
Regardless of one’s opinion on private school vouchers, to include public charter schools and their educators among the beneficiaries of the current or potentially expanded ESA program is a falsehood. Worse yet, it’s unfair to heap undue condemnation on what are essentially innocent bystanders who share the same commitment to students as their traditional public-school peers.
If our state is going to have positive discussions around school choice, we need to be specific about the type of choice under consideration and avoid the shotgun approach that does nothing to further the educational outcomes of all Tennessee students.