NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — In another chapter of the education savings program debate, the Metro Nashville and Shelby County governments filed a motion for an injunction in the Davidson County Chancery Court late last week to stop the program.
This time, the counties claim that the education savings program is unconstitutional in its ask for the two districts that fund them. It also claims its unconstitutional for the students who are still in public schools.
"In the haste to implement the ESA program, the state defendants are abandoning the authorized 'education savings accounts' in favor of direct payments to private schools with public dollars, which the ESA Act has not authorized," attorneys for Metro and Shelby Counties wrote in the motion for an injunction.
Only 5,000 vouchers will become available for the upcoming school year for students in Nashville and Memphis, as it stands.
Families who apply through the state website will submit to an enrollment lottery, and will additionally have to apply their student to a private school if granted the $7,000. Per the state website, voucher funds are designed for students in poverty. Students must have been in a public school the year prior or become eligible for the first time to enroll.
A student who attended a Tennessee public school for the preceding full year (2021-22) is eligible to apply for the ESA, regardless of where the student enrolls for fall 2022, according to the Tennessee Department of Education. Enrolling in and attending a participating private school while the application process is ongoing this fall will not preclude a student from eligibility, TDOE officials said. Students are not officially approved for the ESA Program until they receive an approval letter from the department.
The attorneys who are behind the motion for the injunction wrote that the way Tennessee is implementing the program goes against ESA Act.
"Even if the act’s stated interest weren’t patently false, and even if the General Assembly wanted to improve the performance of students in LEAs with low-performing schools, the act could not satisfy strict scrutiny," attorneys for Metro and Shelby Counties wrote in the motion for an injunction. "The act is not limited to students in low-performing schools. It gives any student meeting the income threshold the right to use public money for private school, even students attending the highest performing schools in the most affluent neighborhoods in Nashville or Memphis. Further, instead of setting the students of Davidson and Shelby County up for success, the state defendants’ hurried implementation promises chaos for the students, the teachers, and the districts. And it has the potential to create an immediate funding crisis that the districts will be looking to their respective counties to fill — merely shifting the harm to the local government and taxpayers."
The attorneys asked the court to grant the injunction.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Enacted in 2019 by the legislature, the bill established an ESA 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 in July. 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
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 — which deemed them legal — 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.