Major Setback for Vouchers in Tennessee
In a win for tens of thousands of public school students, Tennessee’s controversial Education Savings Account (ESA) private school voucher program will not go into effect in the 2020-21 school year. A trial court declared the program unconstitutional in May. On June 4, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied the State’s request that it be allowed to divert public school funding to pay for private school vouchers while an appeal of the lower court’s ruling proceeds in the coming months.
The State Supreme Court’s action prevents the draining of millions of dollars out of the Memphis and Nashville public schools at a time when funding and resources are desperately needed to address the impact of COVID-19 on students and families.
In early 2020, two lawsuits were filed in the Chancery Court for Davidson County challenging the ESA voucher law. Davidson and Shelby Counties – the only two counties targeted by the voucher law – filed one. Public school parents and community members in Nashville (Davidson County) and Memphis (Shelby County) filed the second lawsuit, McEwen v. Lee, challenging the voucher law’s diversion of public school funds to unaccountable private schools. The McEwen plaintiffs are represented by Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate on the Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign, as well as by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and pro bono law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLC.
Following the controversial passage of the voucher law by only one vote in May 2019, Governor Bill Lee announced his intention to launch the voucher program in 2020-21, a year earlier than required by the statute. After the State began accepting applications for vouchers, the McEwen plaintiffs moved for an injunction to temporarily block the law until the court could rule on its constitutionality. Davidson and Shelby Counties filed a motion for summary judgment in their lawsuit.
After briefing and arguments, Chancellor Anne Martin ruled that the voucher law violates the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws applicable only to specific counties without local approval. Chancellor Martin also enjoined the State from starting the voucher program.
Following the trial court’s injunction, the State asked Chancellor Martin, and subsequently the Court of Appeals and the Tennessee Supreme Court, to stay the injunction while it appealed the ruling. A stay would have allowed Governor Lee to begin distributing publicly funded vouchers for fall 2020. All three courts denied the State’s request.
The Tennessee Supreme Court also denied the State’s request to bypass the Court of Appeals and take over the appeal. The case will now proceed through the normal appeals process, with the Court of Appeals scheduled to hear arguments in early August.
After the Supreme Court denied the stay, Governor Lee announced the voucher program would not be implemented in the coming school year and funding for the program would be removed from the state budget.
Tennessee’s public schools serve all students who come through their doors, yet they suffer from chronic underfunding by the State and are grappling with further budget cuts due to the COVID-19 economic crisis. This victory preserves tens of millions of dollars for Nashville and Memphis public schools and the students who rely on these schools to learn, grow and thrive.
More information about McEwen v. Lee is available here.