Tennessee Appellate Court Rules Parents and Community Members Can Challenge State’s Private School Voucher Law
In a significant win for public school students and families, the Tennessee Court of Appeals will allow a lawsuit challenging the state’s education savings account voucher law to go forward. The decision reverses a 2022 ruling by the Davidson County Chancery Court granting motions to dismiss the case by defendants including Governor Lee and other state officials. The Court of Appeals determined that the plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee have “standing,” or the right to pursue their constitutional claims against Tennessee’s private school voucher law, and that the trial court should hear the case now.
The voucher law, passed in 2019, funnels public funds to private education, including tuition for private schools that are not subject to the same quality, accountability, and anti-discrimination standards as public schools.
Public school parents and community members in Shelby and Davidson Counties filed McEwen v. Lee in 2020, arguing that the voucher program illegally diverts taxpayer funds, appropriated for public schools in those counties, to private education uses. They asserted that the program violates the Tennessee Constitution and state law and exacerbates the underfunding of public schools in the two targeted school districts.
The defendants in the case argued that the McEwen plaintiffs did not have “standing” to assert their claims, meaning they were not appropriate parties to bring a lawsuit against the voucher program, and that the dispute was not “ripe,” meaning it was not yet time for the court to hear the case based on their assertion that the public school districts had not yet lost funding. The lower court dismissed the case on those bases, but on January 10, a three-judge panel in the Tennessee Court of Appeals unanimously rejected those arguments.
The Court of Appeals ruled that the McEwen plaintiffs had established standing both as parents of public school students in the affected districts who alleged harm from the program’s diversion of education funding to private schools and as taxpayers contesting an illegal use of public dollars. The court also ruled that the case was ripe, explaining that the plaintiffs “have alleged that they [are] being harmed by the implementation of the [voucher law] in the here and now, not in a hypothetical future scenario.” The State began implementing the voucher program in the 2022-23 school year.
“This voucher program takes precious funding from our public schools, and it must be challenged,” said Roxanne McEwen, one of the plaintiffs in the case whose children attend Metro Nashville Public Schools. “I’m very happy the court has recognized that we are entitled to have our voices heard.”
The McEwen plaintiffs are represented by Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate on the Public Funds Public Schools campaign, as well as the ACLU of Tennessee and Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.
The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Chancery Court for further proceedings.
For more information, see McEwen v. Lee Background.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.
Founded in 1973, Education Law Center is a national leader in advancing the rights of public school students to equal educational opportunity under state and federal law through litigation, policy, advocacy and research. For more information, visit www.edlawcenter.org/.
The ACLU of Tennessee, the state affiliate of the national American Civil Liberties Union, is a private, non-profit, non-partisan public interest organization dedicated to defending and advancing civil liberties and civil rights through advocacy, coalition-building, litigation, legislative lobbying, community mobilization and public education. For more information, visit www.aclu-tn.org/.
Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP is one of the world’s leading complex litigation firms representing plaintiffs in securities fraud, antitrust, corporate mergers and acquisitions, consumer and insurance fraud, multi-district litigation, and whistleblower protection cases. With 200 lawyers in 9 offices, Robbins Geller has obtained many of the largest securities, antitrust, and consumer class action recoveries in history, recovering tens of billions of dollars for victims of fraud and corporate wrongdoing. Robbins Geller attorneys are consistently recognized by courts, professional organizations and the media as leading lawyers in their fields of practice. Visit www.rgrdlaw.com/.
Ashley Levett, SPLC, [email protected] / 334-296-0084
Sharon Krengel, ELC, [email protected] / 973-624-1815, x240
Lindsay Kee, ACLU-TN, [email protected] / 615-320-7142
Christopher Wood, Robbins Geller, [email protected] / 615- 244-2203