Gov. Lee is Right to Defend ESA Program
A recent court ruling by Davidson County Chancery Court declared Tennessee’s newly-formed Education Savings Account (ESA) program unconstitutional, putting the educational futures of thousands of kids in jeopardy. This ruling takes away a valuable tool to improve outcomes for students in Davidson and Shelby Counties, and leaves parents who had applied, or were preparing to apply to the program in limbo.
The ruling in this case relies on the argument that the program violates the ‘home rule’ provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the state legislature from targeting “a particular county”. The trial court’s ruling essentially says that if a program doesn’t apply to all 95 counties it can’t stand. Not only is that an overstatement of the law but it fails to appreciate the dire need for educational innovation that exists in Tennessee – needs that are concentrated in Nashville and Memphis.
The idea that state education policies must look exactly the same for all one million students in Tennessee schools runs counter to what all educators and parents know – students are unique and require diverse educational solutions. If the same method of K-12 education worked for every child in the state, we’d be doing that already. It is telling that both Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools administer their own plans for “Innovation” schools. Even they realize that a single system doesn’t work for every child. Unfortunately, “innovation” is the euphemism for schools of last resort, where often, fewer than 5% of students can read on grade level.
The ESA program recognizes that thousands of students need a lifeline NOW. They don’t have time to wait for another superintendent’s plan, another clever re-branding campaign, or for all 95 counties in the state to sound the alarm. The Tennessee General Assembly has the obligation to see that these students have the tools at their disposal to get a great education, and the ESA was one of its chosen methods.
And despite the plaintiffs claim that money is the most important factor, not once did they confront the fact that parents seeking to use the ESA would rather have the ability to spend $7,100 dollars how they see fit, instead of the more than $10,000 per pupil that is spent on average by MNPS and Shelby County Schools. Let that sink in. Parents are so desperate for something different that they would take less money for their children’s education.
All this comes at a time when most parents are navigating learning at home and urgently searching for options to help their children succeed academically. Because this is Mother’s Day, a shout out is in order. I am so thankful for my own mother who, while single-parenting, made the decision, with the help from my Abuela and aid from the church, to enroll me in a Catholic school. Her decision was driven by academics and personal conviction but regardless of the reason, she made the sacrifice because, like all mothers, she wanted to do the best she could for her child. How many more kids from low- and middle-income families would have benefited if they had access to an ESA back then?
School choice measures like the ESA program recognize that every child is unique, and a one-size-fits-all mentality is not in our students’ best interests.
I applaud Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee Attorney General for taking swift action to defend and protect this important program. Time is of the essence, and I am hopeful that this ruling will be overturned. Until it is, the futures of thousands of kids who have already applied hang in the balance.