News Release

Southern Education Foundation Submits Amicus Brief Opposing Tennessee School Voucher Plan

Education Equity Organization Compares Voucher Law to Anti-Desegregation Efforts

MEDIA CONTACT:  Gretchen Wright,, (202) 421-5830
April 7, 2021 (Nashville, TN)–The Southern Education Foundation (SEF), a 154-year-old nonprofit dedicated to achieving education equity in the South, today filed an amicus brief with the Tennessee Supreme Court in a case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school voucher program under the Education Savings Account (ESA) Act. SEF sided with the plaintiffs in the case, Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education, et al. SEF maintains that the ESA Act violates the Tennessee Constitution’s promise to provide for a high-quality public education for every student in the state and serves only to exacerbate inequity. The organization asks the Court to not reinstate the ESA Act.

In the brief, SEF lays out the history of education and segregation in the South, drawing a line from early efforts to avoid integration—including transferring public monies to private schools—to current voucher efforts which serve to de-fund public schools. SEF’s brief asserts that by diverting public school funds to private schools, the ESA Act undermines equity in public education. It points out that school voucher programs, like those authorized by the ESA Act, negatively affect Black students and students from low-income families, who attend public school in larger numbers than white students and students from upper- and middle-income families, by reducing per-pupil education funding while supporting a system of private schools in Tennessee that disproportionately enrolls white students and students from wealthier families.

“School privatization has historically been a method for avoiding school integration in the Southern states,” said SEF President and CEO Raymond Pierce. “It is disheartening to see the Tennessee legislature using this tactic under the guise of improving education, when we know that diverting money from public schools into private ones serves only to increase inequity and disenfranchise Black and Brown students and students from low-income families.”

The brief argues, in part, that,

Voucher programs do not invest additional funding into underfunded or underperforming school systems. Rather, by design, these measures divert funding from the public schools. For the students who must remain in public schools, the reduced resources present a very bad “choice” – one that they and their parents, and society at large probably would never choose to make. Indeed, recent studies have concluded that such voucher programs significantly weaken education. In assessing these measures, the law must also confront the reality that the public school population disproportionately comprises minority and poor students. A voucher program that structures choices to promote de facto segregation contravenes constitutional considerations and threatens to dismantle hard-fought and socially-beneficial historical progress.

Signed into law in 2019, the ESA Act would allow students in two Tennessee school districts, which encompass Memphis and Nashville, to attend private schools using vouchers that draw funds from the state’s education budget. The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled in September of last year that the law is unconstitutional. In February of this year, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

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Originally founded in 1867 to educate Black children and children from low-income families in the South, the Southern Education Foundation also has a long history of developing leaders in education and was a pivotal source of research and data to support legislation and litigation aimed at fighting inequity in education during the civil rights era. The organization today conducts leadership development, research, and advocacy to improve educational opportunities for low-income students and students of color and achieve educational equity in the Southern U.S. It is based in Atlanta, Georgia. Find out more at