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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Nov 25, 2020) – Attorneys from the Liberty Justice Center are asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to overturn a decision to block a critical scholarship program for low-income students. Opponents of the Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program have stalled its implementation and blocked scholarships for up to 5,000 students from low-income families in Nashville and Memphis.
A group of parents and school leaders represented by the Liberty Justice Center, a national Supreme Court case-winning law firm, is fighting to protect the ESA program so their children and students have the opportunity to escape poor-performing public schools.
“This urgently needed program would be a lifeline for Tennessee families to access education opportunities,” said Brian Kelsey, senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center. “We are appealing this case to the state Supreme Court to open up more options for low-income families in struggling school districts. These students’ opportunities and choices should not be limited by their economic situation.”
The implementation of this program has been stalled at a pivotal time in our education landscape. Inequity is being exacerbated as students in Tennessee’s poorest performing school districts are still in remote learning while schools in the rest of the state are open. Access to ESA funding would allow low-income families to choose among opportunities and services. However, the court challenge has left low-income students without the financial relief needed to expand their options or find a school that best fits their needs.
The State of Tennessee also appealed the Court of Appeals ruling to the Supreme Court today.
BACKGROUND: In 2019, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law that provides scholarships of approximately $7,000 to children from low-income families in Nashville and Memphis. Families can use these scholarships to attend a school of their choice that fits their unique learning needs. This program is the first of its kind exclusively for low-income families in Tennessee. This type of program has proven effective and critical in other parts of the country, including Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada and Washington D.C.
All students who would qualify for the ESA program scholarships currently attend the three school systems that are consistently and historically the lowest performing in the state: the Achievement School District, Shelby County Schools, and Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Their families do not have the economic means to move to areas with higher quality schools.
On February 7, 2020, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education and Shelby County Government filed a lawsuit in the Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tenn. to block the program. On March 2, 2020, a group of families with public school students represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union filed an additional lawsuit. The ESA program was originally set to begin in August 2020.
Case filings are available here: The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education