Memphis Catholic Schools Supt. throws support behind TN school voucher program

Published: Jul. 24, 2022 at 10:43 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The contentious TN Education Savings Account (ESA) program, commonly referred to as school vouchers, goes into effect this upcoming school year after a chancery judge lifted the injunction on the program earlier this month.

Only two TN counties meet the qualifications: Shelby and Davidson.

According to the ESA FAQ for the 2022-2023 school year, each student will receive $8,192 to attend a private school.

These are public education funds that would have gone to the school/school district a student currently attends.

In this case, it’s ~$8,200 per student that would have gone to Memphis Shelby County Schools (MSCS).

“They do not even know the impact,” said Keith Williams, Executive Director of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association. “They don’t know the number of students, so it could be so that the district would not be able to function if a sizeable number of students or parents were to choose this option.”

This year’s cap is set at 5,000 total students, which will be left up to an enrollment lottery if the number of qualifying applications exceeds that number.

Hypothetically, if the two counties were to split the cap, that’s roughly $20.5 million in funding that would be taken from MSCS.

One Memphis superintendent, however, is throwing his support behind Governor Bill Lee and the ESA program.

“(ESA) is the future of education in the United States,” said Nic Antoine, Superintendent of the Diocese of Memphis Catholic Schools.

Antoine has experience with school voucher programs.

As an administrator in Racine County Wisconsin in the early 2010s, Antoine witnessed Governor Scott Walker implement a voucher program similar to the one Gov. Lee is implementing in Tennessee.

“I saw the good, bad, and ugly of it, but the good far outweighed the bad,” Antoine said. “We enrolled probably, in those first two years, at least 500 students.”

The $8,200 voucher would cover the tuition, fees, and additional costs for multiple schools within the Diocese of Memphis, such as Holy Rosary (~$7,200), St. Ann (~$7,000), and St. Francis of Assisi ($8,000) to name a few.

Even with schools like St. Benedict at Auburndale High School, which has a tuition of $12,500, the remaining ~$4,300 would be covered by the $400,000 the school sets aside for tuition assistance.

Antoine said the Memphis Diocese also sets aside roughly $1 million in scholarships and grants to help, as well.

“We’re going to make it happen, and we just want to the public to know that the diocese is working in cooperation with the state,” Antoine said. “This is a boom for us, but it’s also a boom for parents. (Vouchers) are that front-end payment, and then we’re going to make that back-end payment (through scholarships) to hopefully help.”

It’s Catholic families in Shelby County—dozens, if not hundreds, according to Antoine, that want to attend Catholic schools but can’t afford the tuition, who will benefit from this program, as well as underserved communities.

“You think about areas in Memphis that are particularly hard-hit by poverty. What’s their future to get out of that? It’s education, and that’s why we’re doing this. That’s why Governor Lee is doing this,” Antoine said.

The Catholic School Superintendent feels this program can open doors to collaboration with public school districts, particularly with MSCS, to create a better educational environment for students.

“Why shouldn’t parents have that choice to send their child to the best place, the best fit?” Antoine asked. “That may be a public school, but we just want to let them know that there are Catholic schools here. We have a great faith-based formation in all of our schools. We’re open, and we’d love to have you.”

With less than three weeks until the start of the school year for the Memphis Diocese, Antoine believes the school district will see a small sample size of interested students.

Within the next two years, he sees the cap being met and potentially extended.

That was the case in Wisconsin, which now has an unlimited cap.

“I see, next year, 500 students at our schools, maybe more,” Antoine said.

As far as religious affiliation, Antoine notes roughly 40% of the students within the school district aren’t Catholic.

Antione said Monday was the deadline to express interest on the state’s ESA website, but parents can still reach out to any of the Catholic schools about the ESA program up until the first day of school.

The first day of school for the Memphis Diocese is August 10.

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