What does school choice mean for Nashville families?
In Nashville, a child’s path to a high-quality school may extend far beyond his or her neighborhood block. That’s because, in Davidson county, families have the ability to take charge of their own education pathway through the school choice process. Access to school choice helps to ensure that families can choose the best possible fit for their children’s unique needs; and Nashville parents do have a wide array of school type options from which to choose.
Families in Davidson County can choose to educate their children in traditional public schools, public charter schools, optional and magnet schools, homeschool, or in dozens of nearby private schools.
But school choice only serves families if they are fully aware of their options, and understand how to access or pay for them. And even if parents are knowledgeable about their options, they may face barriers that prevent them from successfully enrolling their children in their top-choice schools, challenges like a limited number of open seats, transportation costs, or private school tuition.
If we want to ensure that all Nashville students receive an excellent education, we need more high-quality schools, regardless of type, existing in all neighborhoods. True school choice only exists when there are many good schools from which parents can choose, along with clear, widely available information about those options.
In an effort to help fill that gap, we have put together a short primer on School Choice Options in Nashville.
Public Traditional Schools
Metro Nashville Public Schools is divided into 12 clusters, or zones— with all traditional public elementary and middle schools feeding into one high school per zone.
Families in Davidson County are zoned to a traditional public school according to their home address, and will follow an assigned pathway from elementary to middle to high school. Traditional public schools are free to attend, and students are guaranteed a seat in their zoned neighborhood school. Parents can find their zoned school option through the MNPS online tool, ZoneFinder.
The Scarlett Family Foundation recently released Cluster Profiles to trace the experience of students who follow their assigned zoned pathway for all years of their education. When we look at cluster-level data, we find that student access to quality public education looks drastically different depending on where a student lives.
Public Option Schools
In Nashville, we have a variety of public schools available to our students beyond traditional schools, including public charter schools, optional schools, magnet schools, and alternative schools. All of these options are tuition-free public schools. To help families sort through these options and make an informed decision about what best fits their student’s needs, MNPS offers an online tool, School Match, that provides information on the variety of schools and programs offered within the district, as well as step-by-step instructions to apply.
In addition to traditional zoned neighborhood schools, families in Nashville also have access to tuition-free public charter schools. Charter schools are independently run public schools that are granted increased flexibility in exchange for greater accountability around student growth and achievement. Sometimes, a public charter school will receive more applications than it has open seats. In these cases, students are accepted based on a lottery system. But four of Nashville’s public charter schools actually function as zoned public school options for their neighborhoods, meaning all students with a home address in these zones will be admitted if they wish to attend.
To help parents see and understand their options, we created Charter School Profiles that feature key metrics for each school. With this information, parents can compare the performance of Nashville’s charter schools to other options in the city.
In additional to zoned traditional and public charter schools, Nashville families also have the option to enroll their children in a public school that is not in their assigned zone through the district’s optional school transfer application. This allows students to access programs and offerings at different public schools throughout the city.
But not every optional school is open to every student. Some have academic eligibility requirements, and many have a limited number of available seats.
Academic Magnet Schools
Academic magnet schoolsare tuition-free public schools that offer specialized courses. In Nashville, these schools range from Head Magnet Middle School of Science and Math to Glendale Spanish Immersion School.
Some have additional academic requirements to enroll, like Hume-Fogg High School, Martin Luther King, Jr School (7-12) and Meigs Middle. These three schools are among the highest performing schools in the district, but are only accessible to students who have met specific academic criteria.
Other Public Options
MNPS offers several other optional schools, ranging from Stanford Montessori Elementary School to the Nashville School of the Arts. These schools provide students and families the opportunity to take advantage of a variety of curricula, regardless of where they live.
Another optional school, Nashville Big Picture High School, provides students learning opportunities in the form of internships, workshops, and community volunteering. Middle College High School allows students to take classes on a college campus and earn post-secondary credit throughout their junior and senior years.
MNPS is also home to the first public online school in the state of Tennessee, MNPS Virtual School. As an optional school within MNPS, Virtual School is free and open to all residents of Davidson County, and is available to students interested in learning from home or outside of the traditional school setting, on a full or part-time basis.
In order to serve the children in Davidson county who have special needs, MNPS also has a number of schools dedicated to providing specialized staff, assistance and programming to these students. Additionally, Alternative Learning Centers provide an education option for students who would otherwise be excluded from public education due to expulsion from school.
In addition to public school options, Nashville is home to dozens of private schools. Parents who desire a private education for their children must decide how to pay the tuition, a cost that varies significantly school-to-school. There are a handful of religious schools in the area with tuition costs between $5,000 and $9,000 per student per year, but the costs of most private schools in Nashville reach much higher— often ranging from $12,000 to $20,000 or more per year. There may also be application fees, technology fees, school trip costs, or supply purchases on top of that. But many private schools do offer need-based financial aid and tuition assistance to attract a diverse group of students.
The principal types of private schools located in or near Nashville are:
- Independent religious schools – not affiliated with a specific church, but offering families a faith-centered education option.
- Parochial schools – supported by a specific church or denomination. These schools commonly offer tuition subsidies for church members, and reduced tuition for families enrolling more than one student. Because of these considerations, parochial schools are often on the more affordable end of the private school spectrum.
- Montessori schools – based on the Montessori method of education, which focuses heavily on child-led, activity-based learning.
- Independent private schools – have no religious affiliation. Nashville is home to girls-only, boys-only, and co-educational independent private schools.
In 2019, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation to create Education Savings Accounts (ESA). The ESA program that will allow students and families in the state’s two-lowest performing school districts to access state funds that can then be put towards certain education-related expenses, including tuition at participating private schools. Tennessee’s ESA program, which will be in place no later than the 2021-2022 school year, will provide $7,300 of state funds per child to eligible families in Davidson County.
Parents may also decide to educate their children at home through homeschooling. Families interested in pursuing homeschooling have several paths to doing so, and should ensure that they are in line with Tennessee laws and requirements.
By giving Nashville families the autonomy to make their own schooling choices, our city increases the likelihood that students will be able to enroll in a best-fit school. However, school choice alone can only do so much; Nashville must have abundant high-quality school options if we want to ensure that every student is receiving an excellent education.
As our city works towards this goal, we must evaluate what is working in our schools and what is not. Clear information about the performance of available school options should drive a family’s school choice process. When this information is accurate, understandable, and shared widely, parents and local leaders alike can make sound decisions around education in Nashville.
Explore the local education landscape further by checking out our Nashville Education Facts webpage.