NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's highest court ruled Wednesday that Republican Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher program does not violate the state's constitution, clearing the path for families to soon use taxpayer dollars on private schools.
The Tennessee Supreme Court's 3-2 decision overturns several lower court rulings that had previously determined the program violated the Tennessee Constitution’s “home rule,” which says the Legislature can’t pass measures singling out individual counties without local support.
Under the law, the voucher program would apply only to Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis, the areas with the lowest performing schools and regions with Democratic political strongholds who opposed the measure.
The law squeaked through the GOP-controlled General Assembly in 2019, with Republicans repeatedly tweaking the legislation to ensure it applied only to Democratic-controlled areas after acknowledging it was unpopular among their constituents.
“Every child deserves a high-quality education, and today’s Tennessee Supreme Court opinion on (the voucher law) puts parents in Memphis and Nashville one step closer to finding the best educational fit for their children," Lee said.
Known as education savings accounts, the program would allow eligible Tennessee families to use up to $7,000 in public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other pre-approved expenses.
Supporters have long argued that ESAs are beneficial to providing families with more options to improve their child’s education when they likely did not choose to live in a poorly performing district.
“For the first time in Tennessee, students from low-income families will have state financial support to attend the school of their choice," said Daniel Suhr, an attorney with the Liberty Justice Center who defended the law, in a statement. “We are proud to have represented parents and schools for over two years in this fight to provide the best educational opportunities for Tennessee students.”
Yet teacher unions, parents and other education advocates have raised concerns that the law does little to improve the state’s failing schools because the program doesn’t address the needs of the students left behind.
Furthermore, local counties — which help fund public schools along with the state — are not allowed to reduce their school funding amounts if students enroll in the ESA program and leave the school district.
“If the Home Rule Amendment doesn’t stop the legislature from singling out 2 of 95 counties for injury, I’m not sure why we have a Home Rule Amendment,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro tweeted soon after the supreme court's ruling dropped. “This decision is a real step backwards for Tennessee.”
It remains unclear when or how the state would try to get the program up and running. Another variable remains -- how the school voucher program would mesh with an overhaul to the K-12 school funding formula that Lee’s team managed to get passed this year. The new funding formula won’t kick in until the 2023-2024 school year.
Currently, five states allow some sort of ESA: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Nevada Supreme Court struck down its state’s law after ruling that the funding mechanism was unconstitutional.
In Tennessee, there is an existing program that is fairly small and much more narrowly focused. Parents of students with certain disabilities can withdraw their children from public school and then receive up to $6,000 to pay for private educational services
Kimberlee Kruesi And Jonathan Mattise, The Associated Press