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Will Tennessee's new school voucher program be enough to cover tuition?

The goal is to enroll up to 5,000 students in the first year. Only students in Shelby and Davidson counties are eligible for the program.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Most schools in Tennessee start the new year August 8, but for the first time, 5,000 parents whose kids are attending low-performing schools will have an option.

They can enroll their students in Tennessee's new school voucher program which was cleared by the courts last week. Enrollment in the program just started online Tuesday.

The program allows eligible Tennessee families to use up to $7,300 in public tax dollars for private school tuition and other pre-approved expenses.

The goal is to enroll up to 5,000 students in the first year. Only students in Shelby and Davidson counties are eligible for the program. 

The superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis said he moved here from Wisconsin to implement a similar school voucher program that he said was a huge success there.

"Parents wanted a safe environment for their children," Nic Antoine, the Superintendent of Schools for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, said. "They wanted small classroom sizes with student-teacher ratios of 20:1 or less and they wanted our great Catholic academics. That's what they got in Wisconsin and that's what they're going to get in Shelby County."

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis has concerns that the voucher amount isn't enough for most private schools and fears trying to implement the program with school starting in three weeks will create a chaotic situation.

"We've looked at countless states, Wisconsin included, and there's not been a significant increase, if at all in student performance," Akbari said. "You're taking public dollars, giving them to private schools and the students aren't doing any better."

Akbari's concerns may be valid. The cheapest private school is Elliston Baptist Academy, where tuition is $2,700 a year. 

The average tuition in Shelby County is $10,000, including St. Mary's Episcopal School, as the most expensive with tuition at $23,950 a year. 

The voucher maxes out at $7,300 a year. That means at the lowest cost of tuition, parents must still figure out how to cover the remaining $2,700.

On the higher end of education, a more than $16,000 bill is left after the school voucher is applied. 

It's important to note a family of four must make less than $72,000 a year to apply. 

Thirty-four schools have signed up for the program in Shelby County. Online registration was supposed to launch Tuesday, but at last check wasn't up and running.

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