Update: Families have until April 29 to apply for Education Savings Accounts

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 this past 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. Tennessee Register file photo by Theresa Laurence
 

The coronavirus has caused Tennessee public schools to shutter for over a month, halted incalculable events, and paused business as usual in the state and around the globe. But it has not stopped the Tennessee Department of Education from opening the Education Savings Account application portal.  

Families in Davidson and Shelby counties who meet eligibility requirements can now apply at www.dioceseofnashville.com/esa to receive about $7,100 in state funds per student to send their children to private schools, including schools in the Diocese of Nashville, starting in the 2020-2021 school year. The deadline to apply is Wednesday, April 29.

Education Savings Accounts, a program passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2019, allows students in kindergarten through 12th grade who are zoned to attend Metro Nashville or Shelby County schools to use state funds 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.

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.

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. Additionally, “students still have to meet the admission criteria for the school,” Hammel said. “All admission decisions rest with the school.”

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.

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.

Hammel encourages all families who meet eligibility requirements to apply. “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: www.dioceseofnashville.com/education-savings-accounts. The application is available at: https://online.factsmgt.com/ga/aid/inst/4MK7M

Andy Telli contributed to this report.