FILE - Tennessee Supreme Court

The Tennessee Supreme Court building in Nashville, Tenn.

(The Center Square) – Attorneys representing families and schools that would benefit from Tennessee's school-choice program are asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to allow the state to accept and process applications for the program as court proceedings continue.

The court agreed last week to hear the case, after the state appealed an appeals court ruling in November. A date for oral arguments has not been set.

A signature initiative of Gov. Bill Lee, the Education Savings Accounts program would provide state-funded scholarships of about $7,000 to low-income families to use for education-related expenses, including attending a private, independent, virtual or home school. Legislation authorizing the ESA program was approved narrowly by the Tennessee Legislature in 2019.

An injunction has barred the state from moving forward with the program's rollout since May while the case remains in the courts.

Attorneys from the Beacon Center of Tennessee, Institute for Justice and Liberty Justice Center – all of whom represent families and schools who would benefit from the program – filed a motion Tuesday morning requesting that the state partially lift the injunction.

“Intervenors and their families – who have already lost one year of quality education during the pendency of this appeal – now stand to lose another,” the motion reads.

If the court agrees, the Tennessee Department of Education would be allowed to accept and process applications of parents who plan to enroll their children in the ESA program and train employees to administer the program. This would enable the program to immediately move forward if the state Supreme Court rules it constitutional.

Lee’s state budget proposal, unveiled Monday, includes $29 million in funding for the ESA program.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer,” Beacon Center Vice President of Legal Affairs Braden Boucek said. “While we are confident the Supreme Court will rule the ESA program is constitutional, it may come too late for many parents trapped in the worst schools in the state. Our goal is to save this program for the 2021 school year.”

Entities in Davidson and Shelby counties sued the state last February, claiming the program was unconstitutional because it applies only to the two counties. In May, a Chancery Court judge ruled the program unconstitutional, blocking its rollout. The Tennessee Court of Appeals heard the case in August, ultimately ruling against the program, and the state appealed the case to the state Supreme Court last November.

Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones reports on Tennessee and South Carolina for The Center Square. Her writing has appeared in the Detroit News, The Hill, and publications of The Heartland Institute.