Vouchers Tennessee

People protest against school vouchers Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.

(The Center Square) — Tennessee's Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that an education savings account program passed by the General Assembly in 2019 was constitutional.

The program, which would have started in Nashville and Shelby County, had been challenged based upon the state's Home Rule Amendment. The court did state, however, that the two areas do have standing to challenge the program.

The case will return to the trial court for a ruling on its legality outside of the Home Rule Amendment.

"Every child deserves a high-quality education & today's Tennessee Supreme Court opinion on ESAs puts parents in Memphis & Nashville one step closer to finding the best educational fit for their children," Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee tweeted in response to the opinion.

The program was aimed at allowing low-income students in low-performing schools in Davidson and Shelby counties to use vouchers to attend a school of their choice. Those students were set to receive approximately $7,000 to choose their school even though, at that point, schools in Shelby County spent $13,000 per student each year and Nashville schools spent $16,000 per student.

The new Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement passed the Legislature at the end of this year's session and later signed into law by Lee will replace the previous school funding formula, the Basic Education Program.

The Senate Democratic Caucus blasted the decision in a statement. 

"Private school vouchers, paid for with public school tax dollars, do not work and this scheme has failed students every place it has been tried," the statement said. "In this decision, the Supreme Court erased constitutional protections for local control and years of precedent.

"Not only does this decision usher in a terrible education policy, but it invites more political meddling that surely results in local governments losing freedom and independence from state interference."

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a statement while there were still more court proceedings ahead, the court's decision was a "major step forward."

"The Education Savings Account program has always been about helping Tennessee students — giving eligible families a choice in education, an opportunity they currently do not have," Slatery said. "It challenged the status quo — a move that is always met with resistance. We applaud the Court’s decision that this pilot program is indeed constitutional."

The nonprofit Beacon Center of Tennessee also hailed the decision, which joined the lawsuit along with the Institute for Justice to represent parents. 

"We are so pleased that the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed today what we have always known: The ESA law is not a violation of the Tennessee Constitution’s Home Rule Amendment," said Beacon Center President and CEO Justin Owen. "We are fully confident after this decision that families in Nashville and Memphis will finally get the choice opportunities that they deserve."

The lawsuit from the governments of the two counties alleged that the two areas were targeted without their consent, which the lawsuit claimed violated the state's Home Rule Amendment.

A Court of Appeals previously ruled against the ESA program before the state appealed that ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Staff Reporter

Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies.