Diocese disappointed by court ruling on ESAs

Leaders of the Catholic Dioceses of Nashville and Memphis have expressed their disappointment in a Nashville judge’s ruling that Tennessee’s Education Savings Account program is unconstitutional.

On Monday, May 4, Chancellor Anne C. Martin ordered the state to halt the program that was currently accepting applications and slated to begin in the fall of 2020.

The ESA program, designed to offer families in Davidson and Shelby counties the opportunity to access state funds to pay for private education, including Catholic schools, had long been championed by diocesan leaders.

“We are united in supporting the mission of the Education Savings Account program,” Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville and Bishop David Talley of Memphis wrote in a joint statement issued Tuesday, May 5, in response to the court ruling. The ESA program “offers real choice to parents looking for alternatives to public schools for their children.”

“The hundreds of people who have applied for the program in Davidson and Shelby counties clearly show that there is an interest in pursuing high quality education regardless of financial constraints,” the bishops continued. “We are disappointed with the Chancery Court decision that blocks the ESA program and look forward to the case making its way through the appeals process.”

The bishops added that the schools in their dioceses “are committed to excellent academic standards built upon a faith-based foundation,” and represent two of the largest private school systems in the state.

“It is disheartening that so many students will be challenged this way and the families who thought they would have choice will be denied that unless the appeals are successful. And we remain hopeful that they will be,” said Diocese of Nashville Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Hammel.

The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of 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.

Chancellor Martin’s ruling was centered around the state constitution’s “home rule” provision that prohibits 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.

“This is an extremely disappointing decision, and unfairly penalizes the thousands of families who were hoping to utilize the ESA program,” said American Federation for Children’s Tennessee State Director Shaka Mitchell. “These families are desperately looking for options to help their children succeed academically.”

Mitchell had worked with the Diocese of Nashville in promoting ESAs and led an informational meeting at St. Joseph School earlier this year to answer questions and encourage families to apply.

“We urge the Attorney General to take the necessary next steps to appeal, defend and protect the program,” Mitchell said.

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery III began the appeal process on Wednesday, May 6, with the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

The state also filed a motion with Martin’s court asking the judge to pause her order so that the program rollout could continue pending an appeal. She denied that motion on Thursday, May 7.

“Whatever happens on appeal will happen. But the current status is the program is not going forward and parents need to be told to have a Plan B,” she said of the families who had applied and were hoping to take advantage of the Education Savings Accounts. 

A welcome opportunity

Hammel and her Catholic Schools Office team had been working hard to promote the Education Savings Account leading up to the May 7 application deadline. She appeared in a television and Facebook ad campaign encouraging families to apply. The school office also sent postcards to neighborhoods around Catholic schools in Nashville and nearby counties “to make welcome the families who wish to use Education Savings Accounts to attend our schools,” Hammel said.

The ESAs, which would offer about $7,100 in state funds to qualifying families living in Davidson or Shelby counties, would be “an opportunity to share a Catholic education with more families,” Hammel said.

Catholic Schools in both dioceses were hoping to see a boost in enrollment in their schools through the program. Hammel estimated that the ESA program could help fill a total of 90 seats in the Diocese of Nashville’s schools.

“The fact that we have 2,000 applicants in the state shows there is interest in this program,” Hammel said.

A total of 5,000 ESA student spaces were allotted for the two counties combined for the first year of the program. Just before the application period closed, 683 applications had been completed and on track to receive education savings accounts. Another 1,226 applications were incomplete.

“I think the current conditions with COVID-19 have definitely impacted” the number of applications that have been submitted and approved, Hammel said. “Families are burdened right now, working from home, trying to find childcare, and this has taken a bit of a backseat.”

Andy Telli contributed to this report.