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Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act
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What is a Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship?

The scholarship is a payment made on behalf of a student to pay for the child's education expenses at an eligible nonpublic school of the parents' choice.

What is the purpose of the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act?

The purpose is simple - to provide choice and opportunity to our lowest income students in our lowest performing schools. No child should be forced to attend a failing school because of the location of his or her home or the income level of his or her parents. The Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act will help alleviate this harsh reality for thousands of Tennessee's children and families and fit within Tennessee's overall strategic plan of providing quality school options for our children.

How is the program designed specifically for Tennessee?

The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act is an outcome of more than a year of study by the Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships, which was appointed by Governor Haslam in 2011 and charged with studying and considering options for a potential scholarship program that would fit into Tennessee's overall education reform strategy. This strategy focuses on identifying the lowest-performing schools in the state, targeting additional resources to those schools and providing options for students assigned to those schools.

The Task Force, consisting of education leaders, legislators and representatives from public and private schools, spent months studying the public and private education landscape in Tennessee, as well as opportunity scholarship programs in other states, to determine potential design elements that would fit within the broader context of the education reform work taking place in the state. While the Task Force did not reach full agreement on each design element, it did find many points of consensus, including the concept of focusing on low-income students. The Task Force's report to the Governor can be found on the Tennessee Department of Education's website.

Student Eligibility

What are the income requirements for a Choice & Opportunity Scholarship?

Scholarship eligibility, as it relates to income, will be based on the federal Free or Reduced Price Lunch Program standard, one that is currently well-known and utilized throughout the state. The standard is based on the federal income poverty guidelines, which are adjusted each year to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index. For the current school year, a family of four with an annual income of $42,643 or less would be eligible to receive a Choice & Opportunity Scholarship.

School performance is the other primary factor in determining student eligibility. Which schools will be identified as the state's lowest-performing for the purposes of issuing scholarships to students?

Students enrolled in or zoned to schools identified as being in the bottom five percent of schools in achievement will be eligible to receive a scholarship, provided they meet the aforementioned income requirements. These are the same schools currently subject to state takeover and turnaround through the state's Achievement School District (ASD).

What does it mean to be in the bottom five percent?

Currently, schools identified in the bottom five percent have proficiency rates averaging less than 15 percent. This means of all the students enrolled in the school, less than 15 percent have demonstrated proficiency in core subjects, such as reading and math – failure by any standard.

Since the state's Achievement School District is designed to improve these schools and provide better options for these students, why implement this scholarship program now?

The Achievement School District is currently comprised of six schools with six more set to join the district in the 2013-14 school year. The ASD is building its capacity thoughtfully and strategically in an effort to transform schools from the bottom five percent to the top 25 percent. While we are confident in the ASD's ability and future success, the truth is that thousands of children in Tennessee remain in the grim situation of being told they are in a failing school and having no other options available to them. In addition, the ASD encourages competition and additional choices for families as an added incentive to attract and retain students and parents.

Will this program subsidize private school tuition payments for students already enrolled in private schools?

No. To be eligible for a scholarship under the Act, a student must have been previously enrolled in a public school or enrolling in a Tennessee school for the first time.

Can a student lose his or her scholarship if his or her family's income rises above the income threshold or if the zoned public school is no longer identified in the bottom five percent of schools in the state?

No. Once a child receives a scholarship, he or she shall remain eligible in subsequent years. Research has indicated that student mobility has a negative impact on academic performance, so there is no value in disrupting a child's educational environment if the child and his or her family are satisfied with the school's performance. 1

Program Capacity

Are there limitations on the number of students who can receive a scholarship?

Yes. In its initial year of implementation – 2013-2014 – the number of scholarships will be capped at 5,000. That number will increase to 7,500 in 2014-2015; 10,000 in 2015-2016; and 20,000 in 2016-2017 and thereafter.

What if the number of students seeking a scholarship exceeds the program cap?

In the event applications exceed the state cap or a participating school's available seats for a particular school year, the state will conduct a random selection process giving preference to students receiving a scholarship and enrolling in a participating school the previous school year.

Amount of Scholarship

What is the amount of the Choice & Opportunity Scholarship?

The scholarship is the lesser of the following: 1) the tuition and fees associated with the school of the parent's choice; or 2) the per pupil state and local funding associated with the child's resident school district and generated though the state's education funding formula, known as the Basic Education Program (BEP) – an amount that currently averages $6,182. Any local funds contributed to schools in addition to the state's funding formula requirement – an amount currently averaging $1,180 per student – will remain with the public school system.

Will participating schools be able to charge tuition in addition to the scholarship?

No. Any participating school must accept the scholarship as payment in full for tuition and fees for scholarship students.

Private School Accountability and Requirements

How will participating schools be held accountable?

Accountability is a key component of the Act – both at the front end and the back. Moving from one failing school to another contradicts the very purpose of the scholarship program. That's why for initial acceptance a participating school must be approved or accredited by the department of education; belong to an agency whose accreditation process is approved by the state board of education; or be accredited by one of the regional accrediting associations – i.e., the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Once a school receives initial approval and begins enrolling students, it must demonstrate acceptable student achievement growth (Level 3 or "at expectations" on the state's 5-level evaluation scale) before enrolling additional scholarship students. In addition, if a school performs at the lowest level on the state's evaluation scale (Level 1) for two years in a row, the state can remove the school from the program.

Furthermore, regardless of the school's demonstrated performance, parents will have the ultimate accountability tool with the option of removing their children from the program at any time if they are not satisfied with the school's performance.

Who is responsible for determining whether an eligible student is enrolled in a participating school?

The school is responsible for determining whether the student meets the school's admission requirements; however, a school may not discriminate based on race, color, national origin or special education status, provided the admissions criteria are met.

Eligibility for a scholarship does not guarantee one admission to a particular school, in the same way that anyone else applying to an independent school is required to meet its admissions criteria. However, receiving a scholarship provides an opportunity to low-income parents to find a better educational environment for their child that they wouldn't otherwise have.

If a child currently receives special education services, will the student continue to receive those services and funding in the participating nonpublic school?

Special education services are the responsibility of the local school district, and the participating nonpublic school will not receive any federal special education funds through the scholarship. A participating school must provide the same services it already provides to assist students with special needs but it is possible those services may not include all those provided through the public school system to a particular child. Therefore, parents will be provided information on which services the school can provide so that they can be selective in accepting a scholarship for a particular school.

The idea is to empower parents to find the right educational environment for their child. If the local school district provides the best services to meet an individual child's needs, the parents will likely keep the child enrolled in public schools. The scholarship program simply provides another option to low-income families stuck in failing schools that was not available previously.

1 Hartman, C. (2002). High classroom turnover: How children get left behind. In D.M. Piche, W.L. Taylor, & R.A. Reed (Eds.), Rights at risk: Equality in an age of terrorism (pp. 227-244). Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights.

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