Pro-voucher group launches online school search tool for Memphis and Nashville

An influential pro-voucher group has launched a website to help families navigate school options ahead of open enrollment this spring to participate in Tennessee’s education savings account program.

Billed as a “one-stop shop” for parents to gather information, Tennessee School Finder went live on Monday and focuses on school choices for families zoned to Shelby County Schools, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and the state-run Achievement School District. 

All three districts will be affected by Tennessee’s new voucher law, which sets aside public money for eligible students to attend private or parochial schools beginning next school year in Memphis and Nashville. Other communities could be added later, said Shaka Mitchell, state director for the American Federation for Children.

The resource arrives as educational options are expanding in the state, particularly in urban areas targeted by the 2019 voucher law and where public charter schools are becoming more prevalent.

The American Federation for Children was led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos before joining President Donald Trump’s cabinet. The Michigan billionaire once poured millions of dollars nationally into the campaigns of state legislative candidates who favor vouchers and charter schools, including in Tennessee. But the group has not created online school search tools before Tennessee School Finder, according to Mitchell.

The site is the most user-friendly digital tool so far for Tennessee’s two most populated counties, allowing parents to identify and compare schools near their residences. It includes hundreds of traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, and private or parochial schools.

Mitchell said the website’s design and presentation aims to help parents make informed choices — not to steer them toward private or charter schools. But school leaders in Memphis are not convinced. 

“This comes from a pro-voucher group so we know what this is about: to let parents know where the private schools are,” said Stephanie Love, a school board member for Shelby County Schools and outspoken critic of vouchers.

Districts in Memphis and Nashville now host annual “school choice” expos where parents can go booth to booth to ask questions and gather information. Their websites also provide basic-but-clunky search tools for public schools, including district-authorized charters.

Then there are sites like Niche and GreatSchools, operated by a U.S. company and nonprofit organization, respectively. Much of that information is based on user reviews.

Public, private, and parochial schools, including public charters, can be found and compared on a new website created by the American Federation for Children ahead of the planned rollout of Tennessee’s new school voucher program in Memphis and Nashville.

On Tennessee School Finder, users are required to enter personal information including name and residential address and then are taken immediately to a map of nearby schools. Green designations mark state reward schools with top academic growth, red indicates priority schools in the state’s bottom 5%, and blue means it’s a national blue-ribbon school. All other schools, whether public or private, are designated with gray dots. 

Click on any dot and a tab pops up with information about the school, including overall proficiency in math and English language arts and, for high schools, graduation rates. For private schools, the tab includes tuition rates, whether financial aid is offered, whether a dress code is required, religious affiliation, and whether transportation and before- and after-school care are provided. 

Only a fifth of the private schools shared their proficiency rates as the site was under development. Those schools generally use nationally normed tests, not state-mandated achievement tests taken by public school students.

“That’s not comparing apples to apples,” said Love, with Shelby County Schools. “And a lot of the private schools list nothing at all about their academics.”

For families interested in athletics, band, theater, or other extracurricular activities, the new website won’t help. “We were torn about that but, in the end, we wanted a clean presentation with information that is most useful and we didn’t want to inundate parents with too much text,” Mitchell said.

Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee director of the American Federation for Children, demonstrates a new online tool designed to help parents in Memphis and Nashville navigate education choices for their children.

More information will be added in the coming months, such as private schools that are part of Tennessee’s voucher program for students with disabilities. Once private schools are approved this spring to participate in the education savings account program, that designation will be included too.

As the site debuted, the map for Shelby County included several glaring omissions. It doesn’t include information about the 46 optional schools that students can apply for to receive a specialized learning focus within Shelby County Schools. It also doesn’t list public schools run by municipal school systems in suburban Shelby County, some of which allow out-of-district students to attend for a fee.

For families who value diversity, there’s no information on the racial or socioeconomic makeup of a school in either district. That data can now be found on the State Report Card.

Mitchell said the tool is intended to provide a starting point for parents to narrow down their search, not to make their final decision. 

“It doesn’t do all the work,” he said. “We encourage parents to call schools and set up a school visit.”