Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) said the state is still working on approvals for school education savings accounts (ESAs) for families seeking to choose education options outside of public schools.
“There are about 250 families that have actually applied (but) those approvals have not been made yet,” Lee said, according to an updated report Saturday from the Associated Press (AP). “The process is underway.”
The governor announced mid-July more than 40 independent schools had committed to having enrollments available immediately for students using the ESA program. Approval of those schools was pending at the time of Lee’s announcement.
“There was an urgent need for school choice in 2019, and finally, parents in Memphis and Nashville won’t have to wait another day to choose the best educational fit for their children,” he said. “I thank each school that has partnered with us to swiftly implement a program that will change the lives of Tennessee students, and I invite interested families to begin the enrollment process today.”
The Tennessee Department of Education was scheduled to contact families interested in the school choice program.
The ESA program, which is available to families residing in Davidson and Shelby counties, would allow qualifying students to receive a scholarship of over $7,000 for numerous educational expenses that include tuition, textbooks, and tutoring service costs.
Families with an annual income of less than $66,950 could be eligible for the program.
“It’s really important for us was that we rolled it out timely, but that we also do so with real high quality,” Lee said regarding the delay. “And that’s what we’re attempting to do right now.”
Lee’s announcement came after a court injunction was lifted on the ESA program in July, only weeks before the school year’s kickoff in Tennessee.
A three-judge panel of the Davidson County Chancery Court also rejected motions seeking a new temporary injunction on August 5.
In May, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the ESA program does not violate the state constitution’s Home Rule Amendment.
The Institute for Justice (IJ), a leading school choice advocate, worked with the Beacon Center of Tennessee to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of Tennessee parents to defend the ESA program against the claim by the Nashville and Shelby County governments that the program is unconstitutional.
“School choice should not wait a day longer in Tennessee and after today’s ruling it won’t,” IJ Senior Attorney Arif Panju said in a statement. “This second attempt to halt the ESA program and keep children trapped in government-run schools that are failing them fell even shorter than the first failed attempt — the Chancery Court was right to reject it.”
The fact that the state’s ESA program has been tied up in court may have led to families’ concerns about whether the funds for eligible students would be available for the new school year.
While the governor said earlier this summer more than 2,000 families showed interest in applying, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported last week:
As of [August 8], only 30 families had submitted an actual application, according to information from Department of Education spokesperson Brian Blackley. The department received applications from 40 schools, he said, noting that the application process has closed.
None of the 30 family applications have been reviewed for approval or denial. The department has yet to approve any of the applications submitted by the schools, he said.
“At this time, with (family) applications still coming in, we are continuing to review and have not made determinations of eligibility,” Blackley reportedly said.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn reportedly told the Commercial Appeal she did not know how many applications had been approved for the ESA program.
The Tennessee Star reached out to Schwinn’s office for information about when families will learn whether they have been approved for the education savings accounts, and is awaiting a response.
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