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Tennessee Parents Fight to Rescue Their Kids From the State’s Worst Schools

IJ clients Natu Bah and Builguissa Diallo share an entrepreneurial spirit. Both immigrated to the United States from countries in West Africa, seeking a better life. Both settled just outside Memphis, Tennessee, where together they built an African hair braiding business using the skills that had been passed down to them through generations. And both want to share the opportunities they found in America with the children they are raising here. But despite their hard work, they haven’t been able to give their children what matters most: a good education.

That’s because Natu and Builguissa live in Shelby County, Tennessee. Shelby County is the state’s largest school district. It’s also one of the worst. In 2019, just one in five students in Shelby County performed at or above grade level on state exams, with college preparedness rates at half the statewide average. Tennessee’s second-largest school district, Metro Nashville, didn’t fare much better, with just one in four students meeting grade-level expectations.

In May 2019, Tennessee gave Natu, Builguissa, and thousands of families like theirs a lifeline by enacting the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program Act. The program provides scholarships worth up to $7,300 to low- and middle-income families in Shelby County and Metro Nashville. Families can use these scholarships for a wide array of educational expenses, including private school tuition, textbooks, and tutoring services.

Tennessee’s program is a game changer for Natu and Builguissa. Although the two share big dreams for their children and a common Muslim faith, they want to make different choices for their children’s educations. Builguissa wants to send her kindergartner to Pleasant View School, a private school in Memphis distinctive for its Islamic-centered approach to education. Natu wants to send her children to Christian Brothers High School, a Catholic school, because of its athletic and academic programs.

But entrenched public school interests in Tennessee want to deny them these options. In February 2020, Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced a lawsuit to strike down the state’s new educational choice program. Filed jointly by Metro Nashville, Shelby County, and the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education, the lawsuit alleges that the program violates the Tennessee Constitution. Among other claims, the lawsuit argues that the program violates the state’s constitutional guarantee of a system of free public schools by imposing “costs” on the counties.

However, as IJ has repeatedly pointed out—including in the latest edition of 12 Myths and Realities About Private Educational Choice Programs—studies show that the overwhelming majority of educational choice programs do not cause a negative fiscal impact on public schools or taxpayers. When a school is not educating a student, no costs are imposed—the school is simply no longer receiving funds to educate a student who is no longer in the classroom. That is true whether the student moves away, enrolls in a charter school, goes to a private school, or is educated at home.

For hardworking parents like Natu and Builguissa, Tennessee’s ESA program means being able to rescue their children from failing schools and give them opportunities they themselves never had. That’s why IJ has joined with these parents to defend educational choice in Tennessee: to empower them and others like them to make educational decisions that can dramatically improve their children’s lives.

Keith Neely is an IJ attorney.

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