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Court Bars Tennessee From Starting School Voucher Program

A state court has barred Tennessee from enacting a new school voucher program, ruling Monday that legislators violated the state's constitution when they passed a law last year that targeted specific areas without local consent.

The Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program, would direct up to $7,300 in public funds to eligible students to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses. The criteria for the program, which was set to start in the fall, applied only to Davidson and Shelby counties, home of Nashville and Memphis.

The ruling was watched by opponents of private school choice, who argue such efforts divert needed funds away from public schools.

The lawsuit was brought by local government officials who argued it violated their right to "home rule" under the state constitution. 

The state defended the program, arguing that the criteria were written generally.

But Davidson County Chancellor Anne Martin said lawmakers went through rounds of "horse trading" to narrow the eligibility requirements until they only fit specific areas. The criteria are based on school districts' academic achievement data from 2015, 2017, and 2018.

In her order, she quoted remarks on the House floor by then-Deputy House Speaker Matthew Hill, who summarized the House majority's motives as follows: "We are leading the way to protect [local school districts], while also ensuring that our poorest children in those deep blue metropolitan areas have a fighting chance at a quality education."

"It is undisputed that the [education savings account] Act, based upon the criteria for eligible students, can only ever apply to [Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools] and [Shelby County Schools], because it is based upon classifications set in the past," Martin wrote. "In other words, performance data from 2015, 2017 and 2018 cannot change. Any improvements at MNPS 25 and SCS, or deterioration of systems in other parts of the state, will not change the fact that the ESA Act only applies to, and will continue to apply to [Nashville and Shelby County]."

In her order, Martin also cleared the way for the state to seek an appeal of her injunction.

"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," a spokesman for Gov. Bill Lee, who signed the program into law, said in a statement to the Tennessean

Attorneys for the plaintiffs praised the ruling.

"Today, the voices of public school parents and community members were heard," attorney Chris Wood said in a statement. "The state needs to adequately fund our existing public schools, which educate the vast majority of students in Tennessee, instead of trying to send our taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools."


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