This week the Tennessee Supreme Court rejected the lead claim in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program, giving thousands of low- and middle-income families in Tennessee the ability to direct their children’s educations as they see fit. The Institute for Justice (IJ), the nation’s leading advocate for school choice, joined by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of Tennessee parents to defend the ESA program’s constitutionality against legal claims pressed by the governments of Nashville and Shelby County. The opinion from the Tennessee Supreme Court reverses the Court of Appeals and vacates the Chancery Court’s 2020 ruling that held the program violated the Tennessee Constitution’s Home Rule Amendment. The case now heads back to the Chancery Court to consider the remaining legal claims.
“All Tennessee children deserve meaningful educational options. Today’s opinion by the Tennessee Supreme Court means thousands of Tennessee parents and children trapped in failing school districts can look forward to seeking a better education this fall at a school of their choice,” said IJ Managing Attorney Arif Panju.
The main argument made, and shot down, at the Tennessee Supreme Court was a Home Rule Amendment claim. This provision prohibits the legislature from adopting “private or local” laws that are “applicable to a particular county . . . either in its governmental or its proprietary capacity.” But the ESA program applies to school districts, not counties, and it neither affects nor reduces any county’s ability to govern itself.
The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed, stating: “The Natu Bah Intervenors, and now the State as well, argue that the lower courts and Plaintiffs conflate two distinct requirements for the application of the Home Rule Amendment and the distinct language used in those two requirements—namely, that 1) the statute in question must be ‘local in form or effect’; and that 2) it must be ‘applicable to a particular county or municipality.’ The State asserts that, for purposes of the Home Rule Amendment, the common understanding of the phrase ‘applicable to’ is that the statute ‘regulates’ or ‘governs’ the county or municipality. We agree.”
“With this ruling, thousands of Tennessee parents will get the chance to choose the school that works best for their children,” said IJ Educational Choice Attorney David Hodges. “We are delighted that the Court rejected the argument that the Home Rule Amendment empowers a school district to stand in the way of a student’s future.”
Under the ESA program, qualifying students will receive a scholarship up to $7,300 for a wide array of educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks and tutoring services. The program is available to qualifying low- and middle-income families like a family of four whose annual income is less than $66,950.
“We are so pleased that the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed today what we have always known: the ESA law is not a violation of the Tennessee Constitution’s Home Rule Amendment,” said Beacon Center of Tennessee President and CEO Justin Owen. “We are fully confident after this decision that families in Nashville and Memphis will finally get the choice opportunities that they deserve.”
Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced the lawsuit challenging the program brought by the Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Shelby County and the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education in February 2020, claiming that it would hurt public schools.
“This lawsuit never had the wellbeing of Tennessee students in mind. Educational choice programs encourage all schools to improve,” said IJ Attorney Keith Neely.
With this ruling, the Court remanded to the Chancery Court for an entry of judgment dismissing the Home Rule Amendment claim and for consideration of the Plaintiffs’ remaining claims.