Dolores Gresham

Justin Owen

Education savings accounts would let Tennessee parents customize a child’s academic life

By Published: March 02, 2019 3:11 PM CT

We have choice in almost every aspect of our lives. We choose our home, our church, our doctor, what to have for dinner. But many families don’t get to choose the quality of education their child receives. Instead, we allow a ZIP code to determine whether a child gets to attend a good school or a bad school, or a safe school or a dangerous school.

Fortunately, there are opportunities to empower families to control their child’s education, more wisely spend our education tax dollars, and get better education results.

When it comes to education, education savings accounts (ESAs) are an innovative option that allows families to customize a unique academic experience for their equally unique child. They are the education version of health savings accounts, or HSAs, which some 20 million Americans use to help pay for their healthcare needs.

We spend almost $11,000 on each Tennessee student’s education annually. With an ESA, parents could direct a portion of their child’s funding to the schools, courses, programs and services of their choice. ESAs embrace all types of education – traditional public schools, homeschooling, private schools, online schools.

About 75 percent of the per-pupil dollars we already spend on the child would be loaded on to a limited-purpose debit card for parents to use to customize their education based on their child’s needs.

ESAs can be used for private school tuition, and other specific education-related purposes, such as tuition, tutoring, books, online courses or home schooling. As with HSAs, parents would be prohibited from using the account to make non-approved purchases, while regular audits of accounts would prevent fraud. And by allowing unused funds to be used for college expenses down the road, parents are incentivized to be cost-conscious with their choices.

Thirty states have some type of parental-choice program like this one. Numerous studies conducted on those programs show increased educational outcomes and higher graduation rates for participating students. Further, studies also show that students who remain in public schools do better just by the existence of the option to leave their zoned school with an ESA or other form of choice. And since only a portion of the funds follow the child, with the rest of the money remaining with the local public school system, ESAs increase per-pupil funding for other children still enrolled in the public school. Thus, parental choice represents a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Not only do the children themselves fare better when parents have choice, but so, too, do entire communities.

Based off the outcomes of similar parental choice programs in other states, the Beacon Center analyzed the economic impact of a statewide ESA program in Tennessee. The study found that ESAs would increase the number of high school graduates in the state by 13,480, leading to $2.9 billion in economic benefits by 2038. This would result in an increase in overall personal income statewide by $683 million. ESAs would also make our communities safer, reducing the number of felons in the state by 15,451 and the number of misdemeanants by 21,380, producing societal benefits of $685 million over the next 20 years.

ESAs represent opportunity for many struggling communities, including rural communities, which no other educational program could provide. Educational choice puts the parents – the taxpayers – in control of their own child’s education, improves educational outcomes, and makes our communities stronger. They represent a win-win solution for everyone. It’s time to bring true parental choice to families across Tennessee by embracing a statewide ESA program.


State Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, is chairwoman of the Education Committee in the Tennessee Senate. Justin Owen is president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.


Education Savings Accounts School Choice

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