Supreme Court declines to expedite Education Savings Account appeal

Tennessee’s Education Savings Account program, which Diocese of Nashville officials had hoped would provide the opportunity for more students to attend Catholic schools, will not launch for the 2020-2021 school year. 

On June 4, the Tennessee State Supreme Court declined a request to hear the case immediately rather than wait for the appeals process in the lower courts to be completed. The five-member court issued an order saying it had “carefully considered” motions asking the justices to step in, but that the situation “does not warrant [this] extraordinary action.”

A month earlier, Chancellor Anne C. Martin declared the program unconstitutional and ordered the state to halt the application process. 

Next, the case will head to the state Court of Appeals, where arguments are set for Aug. 5, too late for the Department of Education to start the ESA program when the new school year begins in August as originally planned by Gov. Bill Lee’s administration, which had championed the cause.

If the appeals court sides with the state, the ESA program could launch in August of 2021, and the governor remains committed to funding the program, a spokesman said. 

“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,” Diocese of Nashville Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Hammel said after Chancellor Martin’s ruling. 

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. The ESA program is only open to students and their families in Shelby and Davidson counties.

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. 

“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 in response to the May 4 court ruling. The ESA program “offers real choice to parents looking for alternatives to public schools for their children.” 

Hammel and her Catholic Schools Office team had been working hard to promote the Education Savings Account program, which would offer about $7,100 in state funds to qualifying families living in Davidson or Shelby counties, and provide “an opportunity to share a Catholic education with more families,” she 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.