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Tennessee Parents Defend ESA Program From ACLU Lawsuit

Arlington, Va.—Today, a group of parents partnered with the Institute for Justice filed to intervene to defend the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program, an educational choice initiative, against a lawsuit by the ACLU challenging its constitutionality. The filing follows today’s decision by the Davidson County Chancery Court to permit the same parents to intervene in a February 6 lawsuit brought by the governments of Nashville and Shelby County, along with the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education, against the same program. By formally intervening in the lawsuit, the parents will ensure that the thousands of Tennessee families benefiting from the program are represented as the lawsuit progresses through the courts.

“Tennessee’s ESA program is constitutional, and IJ stands ready to defend it in court so that Tennessee families can send their children to the school that best fits their children’s needs,” said Arif Panju, an IJ managing attorney. “This lawsuit, like the lawsuit filed by the government last month, places the wants of a public school bureaucracy ahead of the needs of Tennessee parents and children.”

The program was signed into law in May 2019 by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, and qualifying families are able to receive funds for the 2020–2021 school year. The program offers a lifeline to families who 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 program, qualifying students will receive a scholarship of up to $7,300 for a wide array of educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks and tutoring services. The program is available to families whose annual income equates to less than $66,950 for a family of four.

Natu Bah is an IJ client who plans to send her children to Christian Brothers High School in Memphis using the ESA program. Another IJ client, Builguissa Diallo, plans to use the ESA funds to take her kindergartener out of public school because it does not meet her daughter’s needs and enroll her in Memphis’ Pleasant View School. If Natu and Builguissa are unable to obtain ESAs because of the lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s program, they would be forced to keep their children in failing public schools or endure tremendous financial hardship in order to try to enroll them in private schools.

“Parents like Natu and Builguissa are among the thousands who will send their kids to better schools because of this program. The lawsuit trying to block the ESA program is not about doing what’s best for Tennessee families,” IJ Attorney Keith Neely said.

In the ACLU’s lawsuit against the ESA program, the plaintiffs allege that the program violates the Tennessee Constitution by taking money from public schools. But the program doesn’t take any money from public schools; it simply gives families unhappy with their assigned school the opportunity to send their children elsewhere.

“There are few things more important to parents than getting the best education for their children. The effect of this lawsuit would be to take away educational opportunities from some of the most deserving families in Tennessee,” said IJ Attorney David Hodges.

Since its founding over a quarter-century ago, IJ has successfully defended educational 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.

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