School choice advocates were thrilled after a Tennessee judicial panel recently dismissed legal claims against the state’s voucher program.

After nearly a three-year battle, a three-judge panel ruled on Wednesday that a Tennessee voucher program could move forward without court interference. Now, families in Shelby and Davidson County schools can utilize state funding for private school tuition and costs.

The Institute for Justice and the Beacon Center of Tennessee were involved in the case, advocating for parents’ right to choose the best education for their children.

“Today is a great day for educational freedom in Tennessee,” said the president of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, Justin Owen, following the decision.

“Parents in Tennessee, like parents across the nation, are embracing educational choice programs because choice empowers parents,” said Institute for Justice Managing Attorney Arif Panju.

Tennessee’s Educational Savings Account Program (ESA) was passed by the legislature in 2019 but has since been halted due to litigation. This past summer, however, it was approved by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wednesday’s decision was part of the most recent challenge to the program.

Opponents worry that the program will cause schools to lose money since funds will go to private schools. But, the judges dismissed that claim, citing a provision of the law, which is subject to legislative appropriation, that replaces lost funds in the first three years through a school improvement grant program.

“The loss of money has already been remedied by the ESA Act itself,” the judges explained. “Such an injury, if it occurs, is entirely speculative because the legislature has accounted for the funding gap that is the source of harm.”

Challengers to the program were also concerned that other school districts have performed worse than Nashville and Memphis, yet the program does not extend to those districts. As such, the program could be a potential violation of equal protection.

But, the majority was “unpersuaded” by that claim. Even so, the judges’ decision does not necessarily mean the case is done.

“We are disappointed by the court’s order and disagree with its conclusions,” said Chris Wood, an attorney representing the opponents. “We are reviewing our options, which include appealing the court’s decision.”

However, several Tennessee lawmakers were excited by the judges’ decision, including Governor Bill Lee, who was named in the lawsuit.

“Through our ESA Program, TN families can finally choose the best school for their child,” Lee tweeted not long after the decision. “Hundreds of students have already enrolled in this life changing opportunity to receive the high-quality education they deserve.”


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