June 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A state court in Tennessee has ruled that a voucher program championed by Gov. Bill Lee (R) violates a provision of the Tennessee Constitution.

Under the program, parents in counties where certain criteria were present could qualify for state-funded “education savings accounts” (ESAs) to pay for private school tuition. Under the terms of the legislation, it would have applied to only two counties, Davidson and Shelby.

Savings account plans like this have become popular in some states in recent years; the term is a euphemism, since they are essentially vouchers in a new guise.

The judge, Chancellor Anne C. Martin of Nashville, said the program violated a section of the state constitution known as “home rule,” because the law had the effect of applying only to the two counties, reported the Nashville Tennessean.

Martin said the state had violated the provision by imposing the voucher plan on the two counties without their consent.

It was, Martin ruled, “undisputed” that the voucher plan would take effect in the two counties only, which are largely urban.

“The Court finds, based upon the particular criteria in the ESA Act, and upon the legislative history detailing the extensive tweaking of the eligibility criteria in order to eliminate certain school districts to satisfy legislators (rather than tweaking to enhance the merits of the Act) that the legislation is local in form and effect,” she wrote.

The voucher program became law in 2019. Shortly thereafter, it was challenged in court in two separate lawsuits. One was filed by public school parents in Nashville and Memphis and the other by residents of Davidson and Shelby Counties as well as by the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education.

Parents who were involved in the case lauded the court’s ruling.

“I am grateful to Chancellor Martin for safeguarding the resources in Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, and the rights of all public school children in these districts,” said Roxanne McEwen, a public school parent in Nashville who served as one of the plaintiffs. “Our public schools serve every child who walks through their doors. Especially in this time of crisis, our schools could not afford to have more resources drained away from them.”

Several Democratic legislators in the state also welcomed the ruling, reported the Tennessean. ­­

Pro-voucher groups criticized the ruling and vowed to appeal the decision in the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education case.