Overview of the ESA Program

What is the ESA program?

The ESA allows eligible students who are zoned for a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD) on May 24, 2019, to use state and local money toward education expenses, including tuition and/or fees at approved private schools.

What students are eligible for the ESA program?

Students must meet the requirements below in order to participate in the ESA program.

 

Tennessee resident entering kindergarten through grade 12

 

Meets one of these requirements:

  • Previously enrolled in and attended a Tennessee public school for one full school year immediately before the school year for which the student receives an ESA
  • Eligible for the first time to enroll in a Tennessee school
 

Zoned to attend a Shelby County school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD) on May 24, 2019

 

Member of a household with an annual income for the previous year that does not exceed twice the federal income eligibility guidelines for free lunch (see abridged chart below)

 

Note: Students identified as “at-risk” as defined in state law [T.C.A. § 49-3-307(a)(6)] will automatically meet the income requirements for eligibility. “At-risk” is defined as children who are homeless or from households that receive benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.

Household Size Twice the Federal Free Lunch Income Guideline
2 $43,966
3 $55,458
4 $66,950
5 $78,442
6 $89,934
7 $101,426

What amount is available for each ESA?

The amount each participating school will receive per participating student is approximately $7,000.

How can ESA funds be used?

Funds in an ESA may only be used for educational purposes. This includes:

  • Tuition or fees at a participating school
  • Required school uniforms at a participating school
  • Required textbooks at a participating school
  • Tuition and fees for approved summer education programs and specialized after-school education programs
  • Tutoring services provided by an individual who meets department requirements
  • Tuition and fees at an eligible postsecondary institution
  • Transportation to and from a participating school or education provider
  • Textbooks required by an eligible postsecondary institution
  • Fees for early postsecondary opportunity courses, exams, or exams related to college admission
  • Educational therapies or services for participating students provided by a department-approved therapist
  • Computer hardware, technological devices, or other department-approved technology fees. (This is applicable only if the technology is used for educational needs, is purchased at or below fair market value, and is purchased through a participating school, private school, or provider.)

Application and Admission

What is the application process for schools to participate in the program?

  • Schools must submit an application for approval to become a participating school in the ESA program.
  • At the time of application, schools must declare the number of student seats in each grade level that will be available for students using an ESA for tuition and other expenses. Schools may later add seats to those declared on the application, but schools cannot reduce seats once the application is approved and during the first open enrollment window. Understanding that schools and eligible students must be a good fit for one another, the approved school is not obligated to fill all seats it declares for annual capacity.
  • The school application also requires schools to demonstrate financial viability to repay any funds that may be owed to the state. The school may comply with this requirement by filing a surety bond payable to the state from a surety or providing a cash balance sheet that reflects a cash balance equal to or greater than the value of all ESA accounts accepted by the school. The bond value should be equal to the number of seats declared times the approximate base amount of the ESA ($7,000).
  • As part of the application process, the school must also submit links or uploads of the school’s academic calendar, admission policy, tuition and fees schedule, and parent and student handbooks.
  • Applications for private schools to participate in the ESA program must be completed and submitted by the principal of the school. The school principal interested in participating in the ESA program must apply online.

What is the application deadline?

The application deadline for the 2020-21 school year is April 17, 2020.

How will schools know if their application has been approved or denied?

The department will review the submitted application and all supporting documentation and notify the school principal via email as to whether or not the school is approved to participate in the ESA program.

If the department does not approve the school’s application to participate, the department will include in the email an explanation of why the school was not approved.

If the department approves the school’s application to participate in the ESA program, the department will include the school on the list of participating schools for that school year.

How long will the application review process take?

The review process may take up to 14 business days.

What are participating schools’ responsibilities regarding student applications for ESAs?

Schools must submit an online form by May 30 that contains the following information:

  1. The name and grade of all eligible student applicants accepted to the school who intend to utilize an ESA.
  2. The date each eligible student was accepted or rejected by the school.
  3. A list of all eligible students who were not accepted with an explanation of why the student application was denied:
    • Failure to meet the school’s admission requirements;
    • Academic needs that could not be met by the school;
    • Other

How many ESAs are available each year?

For the first school year (2020-21), there are 5,000 ESAs available.

What happens if the department receives more applications than the state has ESAs?

If the number of applications goes beyond the maximum number of students that may participate in the program for the school year, there will be an enrollment lottery process.

What will the enrollment lottery process look like?

Students who participated in the program in the previous school year will automatically be re-enrolled in the program if renewal requirements are met. In other words, these students will not have to enter the lottery.

If the department holds an enrollment lottery, then enrollment priority will be granted in the following order:

  1. Eligible students who have a sibling participating in the program.
  2. Eligible students zoned to attend a Priority School as defined by the state’s accountability system at the time of the enrollment lottery.
  3. Eligible students who are eligible for direct certification status (a free lunch designation).
  4. All other eligible students.

School Responsibilities

Which assessments must be given to participating students?

Participating schools must ensure that participating students in grades 3-11 are administered the TCAP tests in math and English language arts annually each year the student is enrolled in the ESA program.

What academic obligations do participating schools have?

Participating schools are held academically accountable to the ESA account holder (i.e., parent or guardian of participating student or student who has reached the age of 18) for meeting the educational needs of the participating student. This means that, at a minimum, the school must annually provide the account holder a written explanation of the participating student’s progress.

The participating school must also provide the participating student with an assessment report for those participating students who take an annual assessment, which must include, at a minimum:

  • the name of the assessment,
  • the date the assessment was administered to the student,
  • the name of the participating student (first, last, and middle initial), and
  • the participating student’s score on the assessment.

What guidelines do participating schools have to follow regarding employees?

Participating schools must conduct criminal background checks for all school employees.

Additionally, participating schools must exclude from employment any person not permitted by state law to work in a nonpublic school and any person who might reasonably pose a threat to the safety of students.

Do participating schools provide special education services to participating students?

Participation in the ESA program has the same effect as parental refusal to consent to the receipt of services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at 20 U.S.C. §1414.  Schools are not required to provide special education services. However, schools must adhere to all ADA rules and regulations.

What are the accountability measures for participating schools?

Participating schools must ensure each participating student in grades 3-11 takes the state-required assessment. A participating student must show academic progress from various data sets, including, but not limited to, the state assessment or the school’s annual assessments administered regularly to students in the private school. The participating school may not use any other test, other than the state test or the school’s standard assessments taken by all students, to demonstrate the participating student’s academic progress.

Do participating schools have to report graduation rates?

Yes. Participating schools must annually submit graduation and completion information of 12th grade participating students to the Department using the Participating School 12th Grade Students’ Graduation & Completion Form.

The department will email participating schools a copy of the form on August 1 or the next business day. The department must receive the completed form no later than the date the department notes via email. The participating school principal must complete the form.

On the form, participating schools must report all of their 12th grade students who participate in the ESA program as one of the following: “graduated,” “completed,” “withdrew from the school,” “repeating 12th grade,” or “other” with an explanation.

Participating schools will define graduation as a student who has either received a regular diploma or a special education diploma. Participating schools will define completion as a student who has taken and passed the HiSET or the GED.

Can a family use an ESA to attend a private school outside of the county?

Yes. A participating student must be zoned to attend a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD); but the ESA can be used to attend any participating private school.

Does the school’s admission criteria remain uncompromised if the school participates in the ESA program?

Yes. An eligible student must be accepted by the school based on the school’s entrance criteria.

Can a participating school send tuition balances to collections and enforce other aspects of private contracts that parents (or students over the age of 18) sign?

Contracts between the parent (or student over the age of 18) and the participating school are not subject to state oversight.

What if the participating school has seat capacity for some years but not others?

Any school accepting an ESA tuition payment must reapply each year, even if the school does not have new seats to offer that year. For example, a school may accept 10 students with ESAs for the kindergarten cohort. In order to continue to accept first grade tuition payments, the school must reapply as a participating school, even if the new seat capacity for that year is zero.

Are meal programs an eligible expense?

Yes.

How will the participating school receive payment?

Participating schools should submit tuition bills to account holders no later than August 1 and upon return from winter break. Accounts are funded once per semester. Once funds are available, account holders can submit payment requests to their account manager. All payments are electronic and will be sent directly to the participating school’s bank account.

Can the participating school offer other financial aid to the participating student or charge the account holder tuition and fees above the value of the ESA?

Yes.

Is the participating school obligated to accept a participating student for a second year if they are not thriving in the school environment?

No. The application and enrollment procedures and processes of the participating school are not subject to state oversight.

Is it possible a participating student may not qualify for an ESA on consecutive years?

Yes. A participating student must reapply every year. Approvals are subject to income and residency verification.

Will my participating school receive a statewide rating in the accountability system?

If the number of participating students taking the state exam in the participating school allow for the state to calculate a Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) rating, the rating will be reported with all other schools each year.

How frequently must the participating school fingerprint employees?

Each employee must have a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) fingerprint screening every five years.

If the participating student leaves the participating school, how long does the participating school have to return the remaining prorated tuition balance?

Ten business days.

Can the participating school require the account holder to purchase tuition insurance?

Only if the participating school’s current policies and protocols require it of other parents as well.

Student Withdrawal and Participating School Suspension

How long is a student’s ESA term?

A student remains eligible for the ESA program until the student either:

      • Enrolls in a public school.
      • Enrolls in a Category IV or V private school or a private school not approved under the rules of the State Board of Education (SBE).
      • Is no longer a resident of the local school district in which the student lived when the student began participating in the ESA program. (Account holders must reapply to the ESA program each year and verify their home address and income.)
      • Is suspended or terminated from the ESA program.
      • Graduates or withdraws from high school. (Certificates of attendance do not equal graduation from high school for the purpose of the ESA program. In other words, the student may continue in the program until he or she receives a high school diploma or receives a passing score on all subtests of the GED or HiSET.)
      • Reaches 22 years of age. (The student may complete the school year in which he or she reaches the age of 22, as long as he or she will not be enrolled in the program past August 15 of the next school year.)
      • Fails to verify that household income meets the requirements.

What happens to ESA funds when a participating student withdraws from the ESA program?

The ESA will be closed and any remaining funds will be returned to the state treasurer to be placed in the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) account.

If a participating student withdraws from a participating school and transfers to another non-approved nonpublic school or returns to a public school, the participating school must refund to the department the tuition and fees on a prorated basis based on the number of days the participating student was enrolled in the participating school.

What are the participating school’s obligations if a participating student withdraws from the school?

Participating schools must notify the Department of any participating student who withdraws from the school within five business days of notification of withdrawal using the online form here. If a participating student withdraws from a participating school and transfers to another non-approved nonpublic school or returns to a public school, the participating school must refund to the Department the tuition and fees on a prorated basis based on the number of days the participating student was enrolled in the participating school.

Can a participating student return to a public school?

Yes. A participating student may return to their assigned public school at any time.

Can participating students transfer to another nonpublic school?

Yes. Participating students may transfer from one approved Category I, II, or III school to another approved Category I, II, or III school. The account holder must first phone department staff before the student transfers to ensure all school tuition payments are reconciled and up to date.

What are the monitoring procedures for participating schools?

Participating schools will be annually monitored for fiscal and program compliance.

Do participating schools have to reapply for participation each year?

Yes. Participating schools must reapply and declare each year the number of seats available by grade level for eligible students using an ESA.

Can the department suspend or terminate a participating school?

Yes. The department may suspend or terminate a participating school from the ESA program if the department determines that the participating school has failed to comply with state law, rules, or department procedures for the ESA program or for nonpublic schools, including the requirements set forth in the School Handbook and Family Handbook. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Failure of participating students to make academic progress as demonstrated by performance measures on multiple data points, including from the TCAP tests or a nationally normed assessment utilized by the school.
  • Probable cause that there is a threat to the safety of the students.
  • Fradulent activity on the part of the participating school.

Can participating schools appeal a suspension or termination?

Yes. Participating schools may appeal the department’s decision to suspend or terminate an entity’s participation in the ESA program by following the two-step process required in the rules of the SBE Chapter 0520-01-16-.11.

Overview of the ESA Program

What is the ESA program?

The ESA allows eligible students who are zoned for a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD) on May 24, 2019, to use state and local money toward education expenses, including tuition and/or fees at approved private schools.

What students are eligible for the ESA program?

Students must meet the requirements below in order to participate in the ESA program.

 

Tennessee resident entering kindergarten through grade 12

 

Meets one of these requirements:

  • Previously enrolled in and attended a Tennessee public school for one full school year immediately before the school year for which the student receives an ESA
  • Eligible for the first time to enroll in a Tennessee school
 

Zoned to attend a Shelby County school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD) on May 24, 2019

 

Member of a household with an annual income for the previous year that does not exceed twice the federal income eligibility guidelines for free lunch (see abridged chart below)

 

Note: Students identified as “at-risk” as defined in state law [T.C.A. § 49-3-307(a)(6)] will automatically meet the income requirements for eligibility. “At-risk” is defined as children who are homeless or from households that receive benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.

Household Size Twice the Federal Free Lunch Income Guideline
2 $43,966
3 $55,458
4 $66,950
5 $78,442
6 $89,934
7 $101,426

What amount is available for each ESA?

The amount each participating school will receive per participating student is approximately $7,000.

How can ESA funds be used?

Funds in an ESA may only be used for educational purposes. This includes:

  • Tuition or fees at a participating school
  • Required school uniforms at a participating school
  • Required textbooks at a participating school
  • Tuition and fees for approved summer education programs and specialized after-school education programs
  • Tutoring services provided by an individual who meets department requirements
  • Tuition and fees at an eligible postsecondary institution
  • Transportation to and from a participating school or education provider
  • Textbooks required by an eligible postsecondary institution
  • Fees for early postsecondary opportunity courses, exams, or exams related to college admission
  • Educational therapies or services for participating students provided by a department-approved therapist
  • Computer hardware, technological devices, or other department-approved technology fees. (This is applicable only if the technology is used for educational needs, is purchased at or below fair market value, and is purchased through a participating school, private school, or provider.)

Application and Admission

What is the application process for schools to participate in the program?

  • Schools must submit an application for approval to become a participating school in the ESA program.
  • At the time of application, schools must declare the number of student seats in each grade level that will be available for students using an ESA for tuition and other expenses. Schools may later add seats to those declared on the application, but schools cannot reduce seats once the application is approved and during the first open enrollment window. Understanding that schools and eligible students must be a good fit for one another, the approved school is not obligated to fill all seats it declares for annual capacity.
  • The school application also requires schools to demonstrate financial viability to repay any funds that may be owed to the state. The school may comply with this requirement by filing a surety bond payable to the state from a surety or providing a cash balance sheet that reflects a cash balance equal to or greater than the value of all ESA accounts accepted by the school. The bond value should be equal to the number of seats declared times the approximate base amount of the ESA ($7,000).
  • As part of the application process, the school must also submit links or uploads of the school’s academic calendar, admission policy, tuition and fees schedule, and parent and student handbooks.
  • Applications for private schools to participate in the ESA program must be completed and submitted by the principal of the school. The school principal interested in participating in the ESA program must apply online.

What is the application deadline?

The application deadline for the 2020-21 school year is March 1, 2020.

How will schools know if their application has been approved or denied?

The department will review the submitted application and all supporting documentation and notify the school principal via email as to whether or not the school is approved to participate in the ESA program.

If the department does not approve the school’s application to participate, the department will include in the email an explanation of why the school was not approved.

If the department approves the school’s application to participate in the ESA program, the department will include the school on the list of participating schools for that school year.

How long will the application review process take?

The review process may take up to 14 business days.

What are participating schools’ responsibilities regarding student applications for ESAs?

Schools must submit an online form by May 30 that contains the following information:

  1. The name and grade of all eligible student applicants accepted to the school who intend to utilize an ESA.
  2. The date each eligible student was accepted or rejected by the school.
  3. A list of all eligible students who were not accepted with an explanation of why the student application was denied:
    • Failure to meet the school’s admission requirements;
    • Academic needs that could not be met by the school;
    • Other

How many ESAs are available each year?

For the first school year (2020-21), there are 5,000 ESAs available.

What happens if the department receives more applications than the state has ESAs?

If the number of applications goes beyond the maximum number of students that may participate in the program for the school year, there will be an enrollment lottery process.

What will the enrollment lottery process look like?

Students who participated in the program in the previous school year will automatically be re-enrolled in the program if renewal requirements are met. In other words, these students will not have to enter the lottery.

If the department holds an enrollment lottery, then enrollment priority will be granted in the following order:

  1. Eligible students who have a sibling participating in the program.
  2. Eligible students zoned to attend a Priority School as defined by the state’s accountability system at the time of the enrollment lottery.
  3. Eligible students who are eligible for direct certification status (a free lunch designation).
  4. All other eligible students.

School Responsibilities

Which assessments must be given to participating students?

Participating schools must ensure that participating students in grades 3-11 are administered the TCAP tests in math and English language arts annually each year the student is enrolled in the ESA program.

What academic obligations do participating schools have?

Participating schools are held academically accountable to the ESA account holder (i.e., parent or guardian of participating student or student who has reached the age of 18) for meeting the educational needs of the participating student. This means that, at a minimum, the school must annually provide the account holder a written explanation of the participating student’s progress.

The participating school must also provide the participating student with an assessment report for those participating students who take an annual assessment, which must include, at a minimum:

  • the name of the assessment,
  • the date the assessment was administered to the student,
  • the name of the participating student (first, last, and middle initial), and
  • the participating student’s score on the assessment.

What guidelines do participating schools have to follow regarding employees?

Participating schools must conduct criminal background checks for all school employees.

Additionally, participating schools must exclude from employment any person not permitted by state law to work in a nonpublic school and any person who might reasonably pose a threat to the safety of students.

Do participating schools provide special education services to participating students?

Participation in the ESA program has the same effect as parental refusal to consent to the receipt of services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at 20 U.S.C. §1414.  Schools are not required to provide special education services. However, schools must adhere to all ADA rules and regulations.

What are the accountability measures for participating schools?

Participating schools must ensure each participating student in grades 3-11 takes the state-required assessment. A participating student must show academic progress from various data sets, including, but not limited to, the state assessment or the school’s annual assessments administered regularly to students in the private school. The participating school may not use any other test, other than the state test or the school’s standard assessments taken by all students, to demonstrate the participating student’s academic progress.

Do participating schools have to report graduation rates?

Yes. Participating schools must annually submit graduation and completion information of 12th grade participating students to the department using the Participating School 12th Grade Students’ Graduation & Completion Form.

The department will email participating schools a copy of the form on August 1 or the next business day. The department must receive the completed form no later than the date the department notes via email. The participating school principal must complete the form.

On the form, participating schools must report all of their 12th grade students who participate in the ESA program as one of the following: “graduated,” “completed,” “withdrew from the school,” “repeating 12th grade,” or “other” with an explanation.

Participating schools will define graduation as a student who has either received a regular diploma or a special education diploma. Participating schools will define completion as a student who has taken and passed the HiSET or the GED.

Can a family use an ESA to attend a private school outside of the county?

Yes. A participating student must be zoned to attend a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD); but the ESA can be used to attend any participating private school.

Does the school’s admission criteria remain uncompromised if the school participates in the ESA program?

Yes. An eligible student must be accepted by the school based on the school’s entrance criteria.

Can a participating school send tuition balances to collections and enforce other aspects of private contracts that parents (or students over the age of 18) sign?

Contracts between the parent (or student over the age of 18) and the participating school are not subject to state oversight.

What if the participating school has seat capacity for some years but not others?

Any school accepting an ESA tuition payment must reapply each year, even if the school does not have new seats to offer that year. For example, a school may accept 10 students with ESAs for the kindergarten cohort. In order to continue to accept first grade tuition payments, the school must reapply as a participating school, even if the new seat capacity for that year is zero.

Are meal programs an eligible expense?

Yes.

How will the participating school receive payment?

Participating schools should submit tuition bills to account holders no later than August 1 and upon return from winter break. Accounts are funded once per semester. Once funds are available, account holders can submit payment requests to their account manager. All payments are electronic and will be sent directly to the participating school’s bank account.

Can the participating school offer other financial aid to the participating student or charge the account holder tuition and fees above the value of the ESA?

Yes.

Is the participating school obligated to accept a participating student for a second year if they are not thriving in the school environment?

No. The application and enrollment procedures and processes of the participating school are not subject to state oversight.

Is it possible a participating student may not qualify for an ESA on consecutive years?

Yes. A participating student must reapply every year. Approvals are subject to income and residency verification.

Will my participating school receive a statewide rating in the accountability system?

If the number of participating students taking the state exam in the participating school allow for the state to calculate a Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) rating, the rating will be reported with all other schools each year.

How frequently must the participating school fingerprint employees?

Each employee must have a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) fingerprint screening every five years.

If the participating student leaves the participating school, how long does the participating school have to return the remaining prorated tuition balance?

Ten business days.

Can the participating school require the account holder to purchase tuition insurance?

Only if the participating school’s current policies and protocols require it of other parents as well.

Student Withdrawal and Participating School Suspension

How long is a student’s ESA term?

A student remains eligible for the ESA program until the student either:

      • Enrolls in a public school.
      • Enrolls in a Category IV or V private school or a private school not approved under the rules of the State Board of Education (SBE).
      • Is no longer a resident of the local school district in which the student lived when the student began participating in the ESA program. (Account holders must reapply to the ESA program each year and verify their home address and income.)
      • Is suspended or terminated from the ESA program.
      • Graduates or withdraws from high school. (Certificates of attendance do not equal graduation from high school for the purpose of the ESA program. In other words, the student may continue in the program until he or she receives a high school diploma or receives a passing score on all subtests of the GED or HiSET.)
      • Reaches 22 years of age. (The student may complete the school year in which he or she reaches the age of 22, as long as he or she will not be enrolled in the program past August 15 of the next school year.)
      • Fails to verify that household income meets the requirements.

What happens to ESA funds when a participating student withdraws from the ESA program?

The ESA will be closed and any remaining funds will be returned to the state treasurer to be placed in the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) account.

If a participating student withdraws from a participating school and transfers to another non-approved nonpublic school or returns to a public school, the participating school must refund to the department the tuition and fees on a prorated basis based on the number of days the participating student was enrolled in the participating school.

What are the participating school’s obligations if a participating student withdraws from the school?

Participating schools must notify the Department of any participating student who withdraws from the school within five business days of notification of withdrawal using the online form here. If a participating student withdraws from a participating school and transfers to another non-approved nonpublic school or returns to a public school, the participating school must refund to the Department the tuition and fees on a prorated basis based on the number of days the participating student was enrolled in the participating school.

Can a participating student return to a public school?

Yes. A participating student may return to their assigned public school at any time.

Can participating students transfer to another nonpublic school?

Yes. Participating students may transfer from one approved Category I, II, or III school to another approved Category I, II, or III school. The account holder must first phone department staff before the student transfers to ensure all school tuition payments are reconciled and up to date.

What are the monitoring procedures for participating schools?

Participating schools will be annually monitored for fiscal and program compliance.

Do participating schools have to reapply for participation each year?

Yes. Participating schools must reapply and declare each year the number of seats available by grade level for eligible students using an ESA.

Can the department suspend or terminate a participating school?

Yes. The department may suspend or terminate a participating school from the ESA program if the department determines that the participating school has failed to comply with state law, rules, or department procedures for the ESA program or for nonpublic schools, including the requirements set forth in this School Handbook and Family Handbook. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Failure of participating students to make academic progress as demonstrated by performance measures on multiple data points, including from the TCAP tests or a nationally normed assessment utilized by the school.
  • Probable cause that there is a threat to the safety of the students.
  • Fraudulent activity on the part of the participating school.

Can participating schools appeal a suspension or termination?

Yes. Participating schools may appeal the Department’s decision to suspend or terminate an entity’s participation in the ESA program by following the two-step process required in the rules of the SBE Chapter 0520-01-16-.11.