A dozen parents gathered at a private Christian school in southeast Memphis were the first to hear details from state officials about Tennessee’s new education savings accounts.
“You are making history because you’re the first parent group we’ve spoken to in the state of Tennessee about this legislation, this new choice option,” said Amity Schuyler, the deputy education commissioner tasked with developing education savings accounts in Tennessee.
The goal of the Tuesday afternoon gathering, held shortly after school ended at S.E. Academy Independent School, was to tell families in Memphis that starting next year, they could be eligible for up to $7,300 in education voucher money to send their children to a private school or to use for other private services.
During the meeting, Schuyler briefly introduced the program set to launch in Memphis and Nashville in the fall, a year earlier than required under the new law. While the application for the program won’t open until spring, now is the time many parents are making decisions on where to send their children to school.
“Right now, I have no gauge on parent appetite,” Schuyler said before the meeting. “I’ve been focusing on the [private] school leaders, but I am making a point to go to any meeting I’m invited to.”
The parent meeting was the first in a series organized by Tennessee’s branch of American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group. The group heavily advocated for the Tennessee’s education savings account program, which allows families to use taxpayer money to pay for private education services.
Jann Dower, the federation’s field director for Tennessee, said more events are planned at private schools across Memphis and Nashville in January.
The parents in attendance, most of whom had children attending S.E. Academy, peppered Schuyler with questions largely about eligibility and what the money could be used for.
“We have one kid who started kindergarten, but he only went to this school, not a public school. Is he eligible?” asked Xavier Louis, who also has a preschooler at the private school.
Schuyler replied that his kindergartner wouldn’t be eligible for the voucher program, but his preschooler would be. Only incoming kindergartners, students who were previously attending a public Shelby County school, or students new to the state can apply.
“What if we put him in a public school now?” Louis responded. Schuyler said to qualify, a student must have attended a public school for at least 160 days the year prior.
Another parent asked if the funds would be counted as federally taxable income, a question that’s caused confusion for state officials.
“It’s the question of the month,” Schuyler said. “We don’t have tax guidance for you now, but we will.”
S.E. Academy’s tuition of $6,000 a year would be fully covered by the state voucher, said Kay Pruitt, director of the 110-student school. She said she had encouraged parents of preschoolers to attend.
“I have parents who tour and say they want their child to come but can’t afford it,” Pruitt said. “We have parents working two jobs to afford this, and they come because of the smaller class sizes. We can give their students more attention.”
Pruitt said they keep their classes to 12 students per one teacher. She added that she followed the voucher legislation closely and reached out to Tennessee Federation for Children for more information.
Schuyler called the state’s partnership with Tennessee Federation for Children a “common sense” one, adding the group has been responsible for the “body of work with advocacy” for the voucher program.
Schuyler anticipates about 50 schools will participate in the program’s first year. State officials previously have said the program is expected to start with up to 5,000 students from Shelby County Schools, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and the state-run Achievement School District.
To be eligible, students must be zoned for those three districts and attending a Tennessee school this school year or entering kindergarten next year. The family’s household income also must not exceed double what’s needed to qualify for free lunch under federal guidelines. That’s about $65,000 annually for a family of four.