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Tenn. Supreme Court approves controversial school voucher program

Published: May. 18, 2022 at 9:41 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Tennessee Supreme Court approved Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher program for Shelby and Davidson counties on Wednesday.

The program gives eligible families public money to send their children to private schools.

The state legislature passed the Education Savings Account Act in 2019.

Davidson and Shelby County governments sued immediately saying ESA violated the state constitution’s “Home Rule” provision because it only applied to Nashville Metro and Memphis-Shelby County Schools, and it stripped them of local control. A trial court and the appellate court ruled in their favor, but the Tennessee Supreme Court just overturned those decisions.

Supporters of school choice, like State Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown, cheered the high court’s ruling.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for low-income children in Memphis and Nashville,” said Sen. Kelsey. “They will get scholarships with as much as $7,000 or $8,000 dollars a year to go to a school of their choice that will accept them, and that includes private schools. So it’s really a thrilling opportunity for these students and parents.”

Memphis-Shelby County School Board Chairwoman Michelle Robinson-McKissack has serious concerns about ESA pulling money away from MSCS, the state’s largest public school system.

“I was very disappointed with the court’s decision,” she said. “I just don’t believe public taxpayer dollars should be going to pay for someone else’s private school education. At what point did we decide we’re not going to do all that we can to educate all of the children?”

Shelby and Davidson County governments sued to stop the school voucher program, saying it violated the state constitution’s Home Rule provision by targeting Memphis and Nashville Schools without their say or consent. Lower courts agreed. But In a 3-2 decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed, saying the home rule doesn’t apply to county school boards.

With the ESA program being the centerpiece of his 2019 legislative agenda, Gov. Lee celebrated the Supreme Court’s opinion.

“Every child deserves a high-quality education, and today’s Tennessee Supreme Court opinion on ESAs puts parents in Memphis and Nashville one step closer to finding the best educational fit for their children,” said Lee’s statement.

But Lee’s plan to offer school choice still divides those who are committed to improving education in Tennessee.

“When you have more collective money,” said Robinson-McKissack. “You can do more good for more students that are within the school district. There’s so much that needs to be done within traditional education, traditional public schools. To divert those funds away from students who so desperately need them, I just don’t agree with that.”

“I’m hopeful future legislatures will expand the program to other counties,” said Sen. Kelsey. “It’s a wonderful program and a wonderful opportunity for these students and I’m thrilled they’re finally going to get the opportunity they deserve.”

No word when the ESA program will start in Memphis and Nashville.

Senator Kelsey said he believes it will be up and running within three months, but the Tennessee Supreme Court kicked the lawsuit back to the lower court to handle other issues.

Chairwoman McKissack said, “the fight is not over.”

Tennessee’s Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery, who argued the case before the court, released the statement below:

“The Education Savings Account program (ESA) 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. 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.”

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