Parents and Advocates Urge Tennessee Supreme Court to Shut Down Unconstitutional Voucher Law

April 21, 2021

The Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, Pastors for Tennessee Children, and Pastors for Children have joined the plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee, a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s “education savings account” voucher law, in an amici curiae brief urging the Tennessee Supreme Court to affirm the ruling in a companion lawsuit declaring the law unconstitutional.

The voucher law, narrowly passed in 2019, would have diverted funding from the already under-resourced public schools in Shelby (Memphis) and Davidson (Nashville) Counties to pay private school tuition and other private education expenses. Two lawsuits were filed to challenge the law: Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education was filed by the two targeted counties, and McEwen v. Lee was brought by public school parents and community members in those counties.

Two Tennessee courts have now ruled in Metro Government that the voucher law violates the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws applicable only to specific counties without providing for local approval. The case is now before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

With the McEwen case on hold during the Metro Government appeal, the McEwen plaintiffs, along with Tennessee NAACP, Pastors for Tennessee Children, and Pastors for Children, have filed a friend of the court brief in the Supreme Court in support of the Metro Government plaintiffs-appellees. The Southern Education Foundation also filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs-appellees. The Tennessee Education Association, the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, and the United Education Association of Shelby County have done the same.

Tennessee NAACP is a statewide civil rights organization that has long advocated for desegregated, adequately resourced public schools for all Tennessee children. The organization opposes the voucher law because it diverts critical resources away from neighborhood public schools and promotes discriminatory practices.

Pastors for Children is a nationwide network of faith leaders and community partners dedicated to school service and fair and equitable public school funding and is opposed to diverting public funding to private schools. Its Tennessee affiliate, Pastors for Tennessee Children, is an independent, interfaith ministry that serves neighborhood schools through prayer, service and advocacy and believes private school vouchers exacerbate existing inequities in school systems by draining desperately needed funding from public schools.

“This law would divert much-needed funding from our neighborhood public schools, which serve the vast majority of African-American students in Tennessee,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, President of Tennessee NAACP. “This brief provides the Court with the perspectives of a broad array of Tennesseans, including parents, communities of color, and faith leaders, who object to the imposition of the voucher program on their communities and staunchly oppose the diversion of scarce public dollars away from our public schools.”

The Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, Executive Director of the national Pastors for Children, and Amy Frogge, Executive Director of Pastors for Tennessee Children, agreed: “Our members in Tennessee and nationwide seek to serve the children, principals, teachers, superintendents and staff who make up our public school communities. They see firsthand that diverting already limited public school funding to private schools would directly undermine the public education that we believe is a human right, a constitutional guarantee and a central part of God’s plan for human flourishing.”

The amici’s brief contends that the plaintiffs in both lawsuits have standing to challenge the voucher law. It explains that the State of Tennessee cannot use its obligation under the state constitution’s education article to shield itself from liability for the illegal voucher program, because the constitution mandates the State fund public schools, not private schools. The brief also rebuts erroneous claims that the voucher program would save the counties money, explaining that it would divert State funds intended for the counties’ public school districts and thus would severely impede their ability to maintain adequately funded public schools.

Finally, the brief responds to several pro-voucher groups that filed amicus briefs in support of the State. They assert the voucher program would benefit Tennessee’s students and public schools. The brief submitted by the McEwen plaintiffs and their co-amici demonstrates that the history of private school vouchers is steeped in efforts to preserve racial segregation, and that voucher programs continue to exacerbate school segregation. It also reviews the abundant research demonstrating that vouchers fail to improve students’ academic outcomes and drain money from already underfunded public schools, harming students and communities.

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 to ensure public education funds are used exclusively to maintain, support and strengthen public schools. The plaintiffs are also represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.

“We are proud to join with community leaders across Tennessee who stand with our clients, the McEwen plaintiffs, in opposition to the voucher law,” said PFPS Director Jessica Levin. “This brief provides the Court with important information about the many harms the voucher law would inflict on the children of Shelby and Davidson Counties.”

Related Stories:

Major Setback for Vouchers in Tennessee

Plaintiffs Ask Tennessee Court to Halt Unconstitutional Voucher Program

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