Appeals court upholds lower court ruling striking down ESA program

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the state’s Education Savings Account program violates the state Constitution.

The ESA program, passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2019, is designed to offer families in Davidson and Shelby counties the opportunity to access state funds to pay for private education, including Catholic schools. 

The Diocese of Nashville and the Diocese of Memphis had hoped to use the program to allow more families to enroll their children in Catholic schools.

“I am disappointed by the decision from the Court of Appeals, but remain hopeful that by building awareness of the benefits of school choice, we will again see legislative efforts to make Tennessee a state where all parents get to decide where their children attend school,” said Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Nashville. 

“It is difficult to see parents who desire a different experience for their school-aged children to be denied that choice,” she said. “These are often families who struggle to make ends meet, let alone afford private education.

“Research has shown that Catholic schools have a proven record of working with children from families in this situation,” Hammel added. “Often times, these success stories are the ones that break the lines of poverty, which in turn helps the state of society as a whole. 

“By withholding programs that enable students to attend schools best suited to their needs, as determined by their parents, we are denying children the opportunity to truly flourish and we are holding on to old systems that have proven to be ineffective for some populations in our state,” Hammel said. “That’s a tragedy.”

The ESAs would offer about $7,100 in state funds to qualifying families living in Davidson or Shelby counties. A total of 5,000 ESA student spaces were allotted for the two counties combined for the first year of the program. 

The state was already accepting applications for the program for the 2020-21 school year when the it was ordered by the courts to stop all processing of applications pending the lawsuit challenging the program.

“Due to the timing of the ESA application shut down, we do not know for certain the number who would have been approved,” Hammel said. “Our schools report however, that 157 students were in the admission process and were waiting for approval for an ESA from the Department of Education.”

The lawsuit challenging the Education Savings Account program was originally filed in Nashville in February 2020 by attorneys on behalf of the Metropolitan Nashville government, Shelby County government, and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

The lawsuit challenged the program’s constitutionality, arguing that it violated the “home rule” provisions that prohibit the State Legislature from passing laws that single out individual counties unless approved by two-thirds of the members of those counties’ legislative bodies or a majority of voters.

In May, Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin ruled in favor of the two counties and ordered the state to halt the program. The state appealed Martin’s ruling to the Court of Appeals, and a three-judge panel ruled unanimously to affirm Martin’s decision.

State officials have indicated they plan to appeal the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

No matter whether such an appeal would be successful, Hammel said, “We remain committed to parental school choice.”

Even without the ESA program, diocesan schools remain committed to making a Catholic education affordable and available to more families, Hammel said.

“The diocese continues to offer financial aid from the proceeds of the endowment managed by the Advancement of Catholic Education (ACE) board,” Hammel said. “This year we not only increased the amount of aid provided to the schools to distribute to families for financial assistance, but we rerouted other funds to offer families affected by COVID-19 assistance in order to keep their children enrolled in our schools.

“In addition to the funds offered by our diocese, schools provided additional aid to families,” Hammel said. “Together we issued well over $1 million in aid. We are grateful to our benefactors for their growing support that makes a Catholic education more attainable for many families.”

This year, the fundraising event for the Advancement of Catholic Education will be held online on Tuesday, Oct. 27. For more details, visit dioceseofnashville.com/ace.Ω