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Sister Mary Johanna, O.P., right, who works in Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Nashville, speaks during an information session on Education Savings Accounts held Jan. 13 at St. Joseph School in Madison. She helped with the Spanish-language session and was asking participants to raise their hands if they were interested in using the ESAs to attend a Catholic school. Photos by Theresa Laurence

Sagrado Corazon parishioner Brenda Padilla “didn’t know it could be possible” for her and her husband Carlos Pena to send any of their five children to Catholic school, until they learned about the new Education Savings Account program that will soon be available to Davidson and Shelby County residents of Tennessee.

“We heard before that Catholic school could be very expensive,” Padilla said. “Now with this opportunity we are very interested.”

The couple attended a recent information session at St. Joseph School in Madison, where representatives from the Tennessee Department of Education, the American Federation for Children, and the Diocese of Nashville were on hand to answer questions about the new ESA program, which will soon begin accepting applications and awarding scholarships for the 2020-2021 school year.

Education Savings Accounts, a program passed by the Tennessee General Assembly last year, allows students in kindergarten through 12th grade who are zoned to attend Metro Nashville or Shelby County schools to use state funds (about $7,100 per student) to attend participating private schools. Students must be currently attending a public school or entering kindergarten to apply for the scholarship; students currently attending private school are not eligible.

St. Joseph School Principal Michael La Haie speaks with Brenda Padilla and Carlos Pena, who were interested in learning more about using money from the state’s Education Savings Account to send three of their five children to Catholic school. Davidson and Shelby County residents who meet income guidelines will soon be able to apply for $7,100 in state funds per student to attend private schools starting in the 2020-2021 school year.

Tour and apply

Families must live in Davidson or Shelby counties, but they can use the funds in their Education Savings Account to attend schools in other counties. All the diocesan schools in Davidson, Sumner, Rutherford and Williamson counties are expected to participate in the program, according to Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Nashville.

Hammel encourages families to start touring Catholic schools now to find a good fit for their child. Families should go ahead and apply to a school before applying for an ESA in order to have the best chance of getting a spot at their chosen school.

“Students still have to meet the admission criteria for the school. All admission decisions rest with the school,” she said.

Families should also be aware that not all Catholic schools will have open spots in every grade, which is a consideration especially for families with multiple children applying.

For example, at St. Joseph, “in some grades we have no room, in others there are 3-4 spots,” said Natalie Eskert, director of instructional programs at St. Joseph. “Everyone applies the same no matter where the money is coming from.”

The program won’t lead to overcrowded classrooms, Eskert said, as St. Joseph will maintain its current limits on class sizes.

When a school opts in to the state ESA program, it declares the number of open spots available, which will be visible through the state application portal when it opens, likely in March, but no date has been set. “That’s completely up to the school,” said Amity Schuyler, Tennessee’s deputy commissioner of education. “There’s a lot of school autonomy” with this program, she told participants at the Jan. 13 meeting at St. Joseph.

The state does have one requirement for schools accepting ESAs, which is that the students who receive the scholarships must take the state’s standardized test, known as TN Ready, in addition to any standardized test required by all students at the school.

Ready to bridge the gaps

The challenges of participating in the ESA program “are really all administrative at this point,” Hammel said. School principals and administrators are already talking about some of the cultural and academic adjustments students might face as they transition from a public school into a Catholic school.

The schools office is considering strategies to help individual schools as they assist students and families with the transition, Hammel said, including the possibility of having summer camps for the students and families and offering a readiness program for them.

“We are strategizing but we definitely know we need to build some outreach opportunities to bridge any change,” she said.

If the students coming from public schools are behind academically when they arrive, Hammel and her team fully anticipate that the schools will be able to eliminate the gap over time. “The kids will catch up,” she said.

Lara Schuler, assistant superintendent of schools for the diocese, previously served as principal of a Catholic school in Florida, where a program similar to Tennessee’s ESAs reaches about 100,000 students. “I’ve seen the difference it makes,” she said, adding that “some of my best students” in her school were scholarship recipients.

Eligibility requirements

Each Education Savings Account will have about $7,100 in state funds, which can be used at vendors pre-approved by the state Department of Education for: tuition and fees at a participating school; fees for transportation to and from school; required textbooks; computers or devices used for educational needs; school uniforms; tutoring services; summer or after school educational programs; educational therapy services; fees for high school dual enrollment courses at colleges and universities; and fees for college admission exams.

That $7,100 allotment will cover full tuition at some Catholic elementary schools for participating Catholic families; their tuition is among the lowest of all private schools in the area.

Catholic schools will be open to non-Catholic ESA scholarship recipients as well.

Families must fall below certain income levels to be eligible to receive an Education Savings Account: $43,966 for a two-person household; $55,458 for a three-person household; $66,950 for a four-person household; $78,442 for a five-person household.

For the first year of the program, the sate will be awarding 5,000 total ESA scholarships between the two participating counties. If more than that number apply, a lottery system will be instituted by the state. The number of ESA scholarships is expected to increase next year to 7,500, up to a maximum of 15,000 in the future.

Families must show proof of income through their federal tax return or their proof of eligibility for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

A worthy sacrifice

Although families can use the money to pay for a bus service to school if the school offers it, they cannot use the money to pay for their own gas money or personal transportation costs. This could be a challenge for families coming from public schools who rely on the free school bus for transportation to their zoned school.

Additionally, families who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program in the public school system would have to factor that cost in if they plan to transfer into a Catholic school, since they do not offer that program.

“There will be some sacrifices to attend Catholic schools” for a number of families she works with in Hispanic Ministry, said Sister Mary Johanna, O.P. “But it’s worth it.”

Sister Mary Johanna answered questions in Spanish during the information session at St. Joseph on Jan. 13, and spreads the word about ESAs to the families she serves at Sagrado Corazon. “We want the open spots in Catholic schools to be filled by Catholics,” she said. “We want them to have their faith in their school, that’s the most important thing.”

“I really hope families will leverage the ESAs,” Hammel said. “We would love to have them in our schools, truly making them part of the Catholic family.”

More information is available at: and

Andy Telli contributed to this report.

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