Plaintiffs Ask Tennessee Court to Halt Unconstitutional Voucher Program

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
April 6, 2020 6:45 pm

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TENNESSEE – Parents and community members in Shelby and Davidson Counties who are challenging the constitutionality of the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law filed a motion Friday asking the Chancery Court for Davidson County to halt implementation of the program before the state begins diverting taxpayer funds to private schools.

The motion asks the court to stop implementation of the law — which applies only to students living in those counties — that would illegally siphon much-needed taxpayer funds away from their public schools.

Although Tennessee’s voucher program was originally slated to begin in the 2021-2022 school year, Governor Bill Lee’s administration has rushed to distribute private school vouchers in the fall of 2020, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which caused hundreds of millions to be slashed from education funding in the emergency budget passed by the state legislature in March.

Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools were already underfunded before the COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis will only increase the need for funding and resources in these schools.

“Schools throughout Tennessee have been chronically underfunded for years. Diverting money to pay for private school vouchers in Shelby County and Nashville is not going to solve this problem, and will only exacerbate the challenges these districts face to provide all students with a quality education,” said Chris Wood, partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, which joined the ACLU of Tennessee, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Education Law Center to represent the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center collaborate on the national Public Funds Public Schools campaign.

The lawsuit challenging the ESA voucher program, McEwen v. Lee, was filed last month. It charges that the law violates several provisions of the state’s constitution and laws.

The temporary injunction motion filed Friday asserts that the voucher program violates the Tennessee Constitution’s “Home Rule” provision, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws that apply only to certain counties. In this case, the voucher program will be instituted only in Shelby and Davidson counties. Because the legislature failed to appropriate funding for the first year of the law’s implementation, yet paid over $1 million to a private company for its administration using funds from an unrelated program, the voucher law also violates constitutional and statutory requirements governing appropriation of public money.

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