On the first day of school in Memphis and Nashville this week, no students were approved to use school vouchers and no private schools were approved to accept them.
The Tennessee Department of Education told the USA Today Network – Tennessee on Tuesday it had not yet approved or denied any applications for families or schools as of Monday morning.
The Education Savings Account or voucher program allows eligible students in Shelby and Davidson counties to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It has been challenged in Tennessee courts by both Metro Nashville schools and Shelby County, as well as by a number of families opposed to pulling funding away from traditional public schools.
The program, narrowly approved in 2019, is a centerpiece of Gov. Bill Lee’s education agenda but had been tied up in court for years. So when the courts gave it a green light last week, supporters celebrated.
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From 2020: Shelby County government, Nashville sue state over ‘unconstitutional’ voucher program
But the news came just two days before the start of the school year, and new numbers show significantly fewer families and private schools have acted to formally participate in the program than past data suggested.
Earlier this summer, the governor said more than 2,000 families signaled their intent to apply.
As of Monday morning, only 30 families had submitted an actual application, according to information from Department of Education spokesperson Brian Blackley. The department received applications from 40 schools, he said, noting that the application process has closed.
None of the 30 family applications have been reviewed for approval or denial. The department has yet to approve any of the applications submitted by the schools, he said.
“At this time, with (family) applications still coming in, we are continuing to review and have not made determinations of eligibility,” Blackley said in an email.
During a news briefing in Memphis in late July, Lee told reporters more than 2,000 families filed applications for intent to use the program.
An initial legal win by the Shelby and Davidson counties blocked the program for two years, until a recent ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court, followed by last Friday’s decision by a panel of chancery judges, kickstarted the program while the case continues.
The Supreme Court ruled the program did not violate the state constitution by only applying to the two counties, without their consent. The court’s ruling did not wipe away other legal challenges to the program.
Still a three-judge panel last Friday decided not to temporarily block the program while it continued to hear the legal arguments.
The state has argued that the program is intended to give students in districts that have low-performing schools a chance to attend private schools in the hope of a better education. Attorneys have insisted delaying the program would harm those students.
Blackley said Tuesday the number of official applications is “changing daily,” but did not indicate how exponential the department expects the growth. The department did not say whether any of the 30 applications came from families outside of the two eligible counties.
Related: Tennessee launches school voucher program: Here’s how the program works
Previous coverage: State to launch controversial school voucher program for upcoming school year
The program’s eligibility requirements are limited to families who make less than double the federal guidelines to qualify for free lunch, about $60,000 annually for a family of three or $72,000 annually for a family of four, based on the US Department of Agriculture’s 2022 income eligibility guidelines. .
The state gathered the 2,000-plus families who expressed intentions to apply via an application window open for approximately two weeks, Blackley said, from the time the injunction lifted in mid-July to the end of July.
The official application, which has since garnered the 30 family responses, was posted in the days after the application for intent closed.
Previous approvals indicate the number of private schools interested in the program has declined. Before the department relaunched the program website on July 19, more than 60 participating private schools were listed on the state’s ESA website.
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, visiting Memphis schools on the morning of the district’s first day, told reporters she did not know how many applications had been approved for the voucher program.
“If I’m being really honest, I’m here to celebrate the first day of school, of our really wonderful public schools here in Memphis-Shelby County Schools,” she said Monday morning.
Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at [email protected] or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino