Gov. Bill Lee at Union Co High School

Gov. Lee Tours Union Co High School CTE Program, May 9, 2022

On Friday, Metro Nashville filed a motion for a temporary injunction that would pause implementation of the state’s Education Savings Account program.

After being narrowly passed by the state legislature and held up in court for years, the ESA program received the green light last week when the Davidson County Chancery Court lifted a previous injunction. With less than three weeks until Metro Nashville Public Schools return, the state is seeking to implement the program for the coming school year despite uncertainties and developing procedures. 

Through the ESA program, eligible families in Nashville and Memphis will receive vouchers with values of approximately $8,192 to put toward private schooling. In its first year, the state will fund ESAs for 5,000 families. The money, which comes from state funds, can be used for private school tuition and other education-related costs. Eligible families include those who live in Memphis and Nashville and make “not more than twice the federal income eligibility guidelines for free lunch.”

In the nine days since the injunction was lifted, the TDOE has updated its website's ESA information and the governor has announced his intention to move forward, releasing a list of more than 40 private schools that are willing to enroll students through the ESA program. Sixteen schools from Nashville are on the list — most of them with a religious affiliation — including Father Ryan High School, Benton Hall Academy and Holy Rosary Academy, along with St. John Vianney Catholic School in Sumner County. These schools are still pending approval from the state. Though students must live in Davidson County or Shelby County to be eligible in the program, they can attend approved private schools in other counties through the program. 

Many details still need to be worked out. Even though Gov. Bill Lee has been pushing for the ESA program for years, the state was not able to work on it while it was being litigated.

“The department has both an ‘intent to [enroll]’ and an ‘intent to participate’ posted on the ESA portion of our website,” said TDOE representative Brian Blackley. “That is there to determine what the need and/or the demand is among both schools that are interested in participating and among parents who are interested in their children participating. Once we determine the scale of that need, we will move forward with putting together a timeline of implementation on how we're going to do this. But right now, we are working hand in hand with the governor's team, and our first steps are to determine what the need and demand are so that we can move forward with whatever those next steps may be, dictated by that demand.”

As reported by The Tennessean, the state is seeking to roll out the program in half the time a TDOE rep said it would take back in 2020. 

“We are very concerned that the State of Tennessee is rushing to implement a voucher scheme with very few details or infrastructure in place for a school year that starts in about three weeks,” said MNPS spokesperson Sean Braisted. “The rush to implement will have consequences for our students and our operations. We have already set our budget for this school year and cannot afford to have millions of dollars redirected to private schools. Plus, we’ve assigned teachers and staff to particular schools based on our projected enrollment. Immediate implementation of the ESA program has the potential to disrupt those plans. We are still hopeful that the courts will stop this law from going into effect based on issues not previously decided by the Supreme Court.

“Logistically, MNPS operates with a student-based budgeting model," he continues. "Principals develop budgets based on enrollment projections. After the start of the school year, budgets are revised based on actual enrollment taken through ADM counts. If enrollment is lower than projected, principals may have to reduce staff or non-personnel expenses because of the decline.”