Institute for Justice · February 10, 2020

Arlington, Va.—Today, a group of parents partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to defend the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program, an educational choice initiative, against a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. 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. On February 6, the governments of Nashville and Shelby County, along with the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education, challenged the ESA program.

“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 child’s needs,” said Arif Panju, an IJ managing attorney. “The mayor’s lawsuit to block ESA accounts for K-12 students reveals his disregard for the rights of parents and children.” IJ is representing parents who plan to use ESAs to send their children to a school that best fits their child’s needs.

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 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 a scholarship 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.

“I am defending the ESA program because it will help me provide a better education for my sons,” said Natu Bah, 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 kindergartner out of public school because it doesn’t meet her needs and enroll her in Memphis’ Pleasant View School. If they are unable to obtain ESAs because of the lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s ESA 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.

“The Nashville and Shelby County governments should support families that want to send their kids to different schools when the only option forced upon them isn’t working. Their lawsuit is not about doing what’s best for Tennessee families,” IJ Attorney Keith Neely said.

In the lawsuit against the program, the plaintiffs allege that the ESA program violates three provisions of the Tennessee Constitution.

“No matter how you look at it, Tennessee’s ESA program is constitutional,” IJ Attorney David Hodges said. “ESA programs are popular throughout the country because they are an innovative way for parents to get the best education for their children. Instead of suing to stop these programs, Nashville and Memphis should be supporting parents.”

Since its founding over a quarter-century 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.