Judge rules Tennessee school voucher program unconstitutional

May 5, 2020
Ruling says the governor's initiative, which applies only to two counties, violates home-rule powers.

A Davidson County, Tenn., judge has declared Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's education savings account program unconstitutional.

The Nashville Tennessean reports that Chancellor Anne C. Martin ruled that the school voucher program violated the home rule section of the state constitution because the law applied only to Davidson and Shelby counties. 

As a result, the state improperly imposed the program on the two counties without their consent, Martin ruled.

The law would allow eligible families in Davidson and Shelby counties to use public money to pay for private school tuition, among other educational needs.

"We strongly disagree with the court's ruling and will swiftly appeal on behalf of Tennessee students who deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach to education," says the governor's spokesman Gillum Ferguson.

Plaintiffs contend that the law itself—its narrow focus on two counties, the way the funds are allocated and assessed and the inability of the counties to approve the plan—are all unconstitutional under state law.

Two lawsuits challenged the program—One was filed by a group of public school parents and community members from Nashville and Memphis, and the other by Davidson and Shelby Counties and the Metro Nashville school board.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper says the city "must have the authority to determine how investments are made in the best interest of our residents. We, of course, do not feel that vouchers are a solution for improving public education."

The law, narrowly passed in 2019, was set to go into effect this fall.

In her ruling, Martin said it was "undisputed" that the voucher law would apply only to the two urban school districts.

Opponents argue the law will unfairly divert "scarce" public funding to private schools. Supporters of the law insist it would enable parents to choose where their children get an education, especially in areas with historically low test scores and schools considered failing by the state.

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