Education savings accounts are now legal for Tennessee students. Here's what that means.

Posted at 4:46 PM, Jul 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-10 22:39:53-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF)  — The Davidson County Chancery Court vacated an order that will now make education savings accounts a viable option for Tennessee students.

Enacted in 2019 by the legislature would establish a program for students to receive money directly for their education rather than a public school system to pay for private education. The Tennessee Department of Education officials said they were "excited to restart work" for families and students. During the injunction, the department couldn't work on preparation plans for the ESAs. It's not clear when the program will begin.

During a five-year period, up to 15,000 students could become eligible for these benefits in the Metro Nashville Public School system, Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. Students will have $7,000 to use toward a school, where they could also apply for financial aid to supplement the rest of the cost.

"Today the court removed the final roadblock to getting Memphis and Nashville families additional options for high-quality education,” said Gov. Bill Lee. "Starting today, we will work to help eligible parents enroll this school year, as we ensure Tennessee families have the opportunity to choose the school that they believe is best for their child."

Lower courts, including the Davidson County Chancery Court and the Tennessee Court of Appeals, previously ruled they weren't constitutional. That decision was appealed in 2021.

The Tennessee Supreme Court's decision was met with rebuke from Nashville leaders, including MNPS Superintendent Adrienne Battle and Mayor John Cooper. District leaders were already concerned about the transition from the Basic Education Program to the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act, which will calculate how much school districts get per student.

State lawmakers are skeptical of the rollout timeline for the program. With school starting in just weeks, the promise of vouchers this year seems far-fetched for Nashville State Senator Jeff Yarbro.

"Schools all over are preparing for next year right now. Classrooms in many instances are full, and I think that this is really going to create situations that are open to abuse," said Sen. Yarbro.

The state's ESA website was live Thursday morning. And though the original amount of the voucher program was $7,300, the website stated $7,000 would be available to parents trying to choose a different school.

Yarbro also questioned whether or not the speed at which the program had to be implemented could lead to fraud.

"Most people who go to private schools right now are not low income who are technically eligible for this. How is the state going to set up the income verification requirements in the next 30 days to actually vet everyone who is applying and implement this program."

Despite objections from Nashville and Memphis leaders, local private schools have spoken in support of the program in the past. In 2019, the leader of The Covenant School said she was intrigued by the idea and would even be open to help some students bridge the financial gap to pay for the schools tuition, which was about $13,000 at the time.

Legislators locked in TISA during this past legislative session.

The state has listed more than a dozen private schools that are willing to help with the initiative.