School Choice in Tennessee – Only for Memphis and Nashville Students and Parents

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol on Sept. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Why are families in Davidson and Shelby Counties able to choose the best school for their children, while parents in the other 93 counties in Tennessee continue to go to zoned schools?

On July 13, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling which blocked legislation passed in 2019 giving parents in these two counties the ability to access Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), the per-pupil funding from the state budget, to select a school. 

The ESA program was the signature legislation of Governor Bill Lee in his first year in office after campaigning successfully on the issue. As early as August 2017, over a year before first elected in November 2018, Lee supported parents’ decision-making in an Associated Press article: “Parents need choices, and they need options. So, I would be a strong advocate for school choice in every area of the state.”

Failure to pass school choice legislation by Gov. Bill Haslam due to opposition of the Tennessee General Assembly did not deter candidate-turned-Governor Bill Lee declaring, “Those decisions are best made at home” advocating for parents and students choices.

Lee’s proposal in 2019 was set to be a 3-year pilot for 5,000 students in the state’s worst-performing schools in year one, increasing by 2,500 each year, thereafter. Each student would receive about $7,300 in an Educational Savings Account to follow them to the school of the parent’s choice. Despite months of meetings, bargaining and haggling with the members of the Tennessee General Assembly failed. In May 2019, legislation passed permitting only parents in the Shelby County (Memphis area) and Davidson County (Nashville area) to make the best decisions for their students.

Denisha Merriweather

Governor Bill Lee’s Administration announced the relaunch of the ESA, or the Education Savings Account Program, website for July 19, less than a week following the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling. 

Follow the news and process about Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Program. Your voice and interest expressed to your elected leadership will be the key to expansion for all children, not just those living in the two most populous counties in our state. 

Tennesseans would benefit, just as Denisha Merriweather did as a child, from school choice. Denisha failed third grade twice and had a troubled reputation. Ms. Merriweather has given interviews to the Wall Street Journal and Forbes sharing that she had expected to be a school dropout. Instead. Florida’s school choice program saved her through an educational selection that fit her needs.

After college graduation with her Master’s in social work, Ms. Merriweather worked for the US Department of Education and then founded  Black Minds Matter, a nonprofit organization devoted to promote excellence and “the development of high-quality school options for Black students,” citing data that only about 15 of 100 black students are proficient in reading. Ms. Merriweather describes her role as an education reformer. 

Denisha Merriweather is part of the 75% of the Black community who supports school choice, as polled by Public Opinion Strategies last year. Speak up. Tennessee reforms are underway.