Institute for Justice · November 25, 2020

Arlington, Va.—This afternoon, two Tennessee parents appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court a September decision from an appellate court that declared the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program in violation of the Tennessee Constitution. The parents planned to use the Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) authorized by the law to remove their children from chronically underperforming school districts and enroll them at schools that meet their needs.

These parents partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to defend the program from a constitutional challenge levied against it in February, and they are jointly defending the program alongside another set of parents represented by the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

In the September ruling against the program, the appeals court ruled that the pilot program was unconstitutional under the Home Rule Amendment of the Tennessee Constitution. This provision prohibits the legislature from adopting “private or local” laws that are “applicable to a particular county . . . in either its governmental or its proprietary capacity.” But the program applies to school districts, not counties, and it neither affects nor reduces any county’s ability to govern itself. The law simply empowers low- and middle-income families with children assigned to some of Tennessee’s worst-performing schools, and does so by allowing them to receive their state education benefit in an ESA so that they can afford private educational options that meet their needs. The parents filing today’s appeal are asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to reverse the appellate court and restore Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program.

“Today, parents are asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to protect educational choice in Tennessee, and to remind Shelby County and Metro that they exist to serve Tennesseans, not the other way around,” said IJ managing attorney Arif Panju. “Shelby County and Metro launched a legal challenge to extinguish educational options that benefit Tennessee children—their own constituents.”

The ESA program was passed in 2019 by the Tennessee Legislature. The program can offer a lifeline to families that would like to leave underperforming school districts that do not meet their children’s needs, but who lacked the financial resources to do so until now. Under the ESA program, qualifying students will receive a scholarship up to $7,300 for a wide array of educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks, and tutoring services. The program is available to qualifying low- and middle-income families like a family of four whose annual income is less than $66,950.

The February lawsuit was brought by the governments of Nashville and Shelby County, along with the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education.