Institute for Justice · May 5, 2020

Monday evening, the Chancery Court for Davidson County held that Tennessee’s ESA Pilot Program Act violated the Home Rule Amendment of the Tennessee Constitution and enjoined further implementation of the program. The ruling follows a February lawsuit on behalf of the governments of Nashville and Shelby County along with the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education. Recognizing the significance of this ruling, the court also granted the parties the ability to immediately appeal its decision.

Back in February when Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced a lawsuit against the ESA program, Tennessee parents Natu Bah and Builguissa Diallo partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to defend the program, for they intended to send their children to better schools than their government-assigned ones with the ESA program. They vowed to appeal the decision and will ask the court to stay its decision so children can benefit from the program as litigation continues.

“The parents defending the ESA Pilot Program will immediately appeal the court’s ruling,” said Arif Panju, managing attorney at the Institute for Justice. “In striking down an educational lifeline that will help low- and middle- income children trapped in failing schools, the court had to significantly expand the Tennessee Constitution’s Home Rule provision and apply it to a law that, on its face, required a county to do nothing—not exercise its power nor fund anything. That ignores the text of the Constitution.”

The program offers a 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 program, qualifying students will receive an education savings account with up to $7,300 for a wide array of educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks and tutoring services. The program is available to lower- and middle-income families whose annual income is less than $66,950 for a family of four.

Since its founding over a quarter-century ago, IJ has successfully defended school choice programs across the country, including three times in 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.