FILE - Tennessee Supreme Court

The Tennessee Supreme Court building in Nashville, Tenn.

(The Center Square) – The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of a school-choice program that would provide state-funded scholarships to low-income families to use for educational purposes, including attending a private school of their choice.

After refusing to intervene in the case when the state appealed last year, the court agreed Thursday to hear the case. A date for oral arguments will be set after briefs are filed. 

"The Tennessee Supreme Court's willingness to hear the case is an encouraging development,” Laine Arnold, a spokesperson for Gov. Bill Lee, told The Center Square. “We remain committed to parent choice and providing high-quality education options for Tennessee families.”

"School year 2020-2021 has shown how important educating our children is, especially in-person learning," said Samantha Fisher, communications director for the Tennessee attorney general's office. "We look forward to presenting to the court how important education alternatives are."

The Education Savings Account (ESA) 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. Funds also may be used for school uniforms and books, transportation to and from school, and educational technology. Leftover funds may be used to save for college.

Lee proposed legislation authorizing a five-year pilot ESA program in Shelby and Davidson counties shortly after his inauguration in 2019. The Tennessee Legislature narrowly passed the measure that spring.

Entities in both counties sued the state last February, claiming the program was unconstitutional because it applies only to Davidson and Shelby 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 Supreme Court last November.

"The trial court and a unanimous court of appeals panel held that the ESA Act imposes an unconstitutional burden on local sovereignty,” Metro Law Director Bob Cooper said. “We look forward to presenting those same issues to the Supreme Court."

The state has indicated if the program is allowed to launch and is successful, it intends to expand the program to additional counties. 

The governor's budget last spring included funding for the program, but the funding was cut back significantly last June as the Legislature braced for the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Gov. Lee will present his budget to the Legislature on Monday, and we are hopeful that the Legislature will fund the program as it has previously," said Brian Kelsey, a senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, which has intervened in the case. 

Opponents of the program argue that it will result in funding cuts for the impacted school districts. Research from the Beacon Center of Tennessee – another intervener in the case – found that Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools could net between $500 and $2,000 in savings per student if the program is implemented.

“We are thrilled that the Supreme Court has decided to take this important case to protect the rights of thousands of low-income students to attend the school that best fits their needs,” Kelsey said. “Tennessee students and families now have the opportunity to be heard and continue their fight to narrow gaps in educational inequality and access.”

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.