TN Supreme Court: ESA Pilot Program does not violate Home Rule Amendment
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - The Tennessee Supreme Court issued an opinion Wednesday that said Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program is not unconstitutional.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed the ESA in 2019 which established a program allowing a limited number of eligible students to directly receive their share of state and local education funds, which would ordinarily be provided to the public school system they attend, to pay for a private school education and associated expense.
The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Shelby County Government and the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education filed a lawsuit claiming the ESA Act violated several provisions of the Tennessee Constitution, including the Home Rule Amendment, the equal protection clauses and the education clause.
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III praised the Court’s ruling on the ESA program.
“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. It challenged the status quo, a move that is always met with resistance,” Slatery said in a statement. “We applaud the Court’s decision that this pilot program is indeed constitutional. While there are further court proceedings that need to take place, this is a major step forward.”
Educators in Davidson and Shelby counties claim the voucher law targeted those school systems.
“Private school vouchers undermine our public schools and have failed to support the learning needs of students who have used them in other states where they have been tried,” Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Dr. Adrienne Battle said in a statement. “We strongly disagree with the court’s opinion which undermines the principles of local control and will harm Davidson County taxpayers who will ultimately be on the hook to pay for the state’s voucher scheme.
“Metro Schools are already significantly underfunded by the State of Tennessee under the BEP and TISA. If the private school voucher law goes into effect, this underfunding willy only be worsened to the detriment of the children of Nashville.”
“We’re disappointed by today’s ruling but will continue to fight this law through all possible avenues,” TJ Ducklo, Chief Communications Officer and Senior Advisor for Mayor John Cooper, said in a statement. “The Mayor strongly believes that diverting scarce state school funds away from our public school system and into the hands of private schools is directly against the interest of Nashville’s children and families. That is especially true when state law arbitrarily and unjustly singles out a few counties, including ours, to effectively receive less money for public schools. Meanwhile, as the state takes money away from Nashville’s schools, Mayor Cooper has made record investments in our schools for two consecutive years, making our teachers the best paid in the state, vastly improving our schools’ technology and infrastructure, and significantly increasing pay for our support staff, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and paraprofessionals.”
The Supreme Court ruled the ESA Act did not violate the Home Rule Amendment because the act regulates the conduct of the local education agencies and not the counties. Justice Sharon G. Lee and Justice Holly Kirby wrote a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part. They agreed that Metro and Shelby County had standing to challenge the ESA Act but concluded the Act violates the Home Rule Amendment. Under the ESA Act, only Metro and Shelby County, and no other counties in the state, must pay for students who leave public schools and use vouchers for private school tuition. Because the ESA Act is local in effect and application, and because the Act gives Metro and Shelby County no choice in the matter, Lee and Kirby believe it violates the Home Rule Amendment.
To read the majority opinion in Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, et al. v. Tennessee Department of Education, et al., authored by Chief Justice Roger A. Page, and the separate opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.
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