Institute for Justice · May 20, 2020

Tennessee parents Natu Bah and Builguissa Diallo today asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to stay the adverse decision against Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program Act, which the Chancery Court of Davidson County had declared unconstitutional earlier this month, and to decide the case itself now rather than wait for a decision from the Court of Appeals. Following a lawsuit against the ESA program announced by Nashville Mayor John Cooper, the parents teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to intervene in the suit in support of the program. That lawsuit was joined by the Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Shelby County and Metro Nashville Board of Public Education.

“Tennessee’s ESA Pilot Program is a lifeline for the parents whose children are trapped in failing public schools,” declared IJ Senior Attorney Tim Keller. “It is critical that the state be permitted to continue implementing the program this year. That is why we have asked the State Supreme Court to decide this case on an expedited basis and to allow the program to be implemented while the courts resolve the legal and constitutional questions.”

Last night, the Tennessee Court of Appeals granted the parents and the state defendants to appeal the Chancery Court’s decision declaring the ESA Program unconstitutional but denied their request to stay the lower court’s ruling. The parents’ motion, filed today in the Tennessee Supreme Court, requests that the Court assume jurisdiction over the appeal and set an expedited briefing schedule and oral argument so the constitutionality of the program can be ruled on before the school year. They also asked the High Court to stay the Chancery Court’s injunction blocking further implementation of the Pilot Program while the appeal is pending.

The ESA program was passed in 2019 by the Tennessee General Assembly. The program offers a much-needed lifeline to families that would like to leave public schools that do not meet their children’s needs, but who lack the financial resources to do so. Under the ESA Pilot 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 lower- and middle-income families like a family of four whose annual income is less than $66,950.

“My sons need a better education now. I can’t wait a year for this to be sorted out,” said Natu Bah, a parent intervenor in the legal battle.

“School choice programs provide an opportunity for children to get the education that is best for them, regardless of where they live,” said IJ Educational Choice Attorney David Hodges. “This program serves some of the most vulnerable students in Tennessee—who attend schools where not even one in five students is at grade level—and empowers them to leave schools that are not working for them.”

Since its founding over 25 years ago, IJ has successfully defended school choice programs across the country, including three times at the U.S. Supreme Court. This January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, an IJ case that asks the Court to strike down a government ban on using tax credit-funded scholarships to attend religious schools.