Nashville, Tennessee — A Tennessee judge on Monday ruled that the state's much-debated school voucher program is illegal and cannot be implemented despite education officials receiving thousands of applications from parents hoping to use public tax dollars on private school tuition.
Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin said in her order that the voucher law, which Gov. Bill Lee signed into effect last year, violated the Tennessee constitution's "home rule." Lee's administration had backed the legislation during his first year as governor, gaining just narrow support from the GOP-controlled Statehouse and strong opposition from Democratic members and public education advocates.
Plaintiffs in the legal challenge had ranged from Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis; as well as parents opposed to education savings accounts. They had argued Republican lawmakers did not receive local consent when drawing legislation affecting local communities, which is required under Tennessee's constitution
According to the law, the voucher program would only apply to Nashville and Memphis, the areas with the lowest performing schools and regions with Democratic political strongholds.
The original version of the measure included several other counties, but it was eventually whittled down after Republican lawmakers objected due to uneasiness about launching a voucher program in their own legislative districts.
"The entire process of the General Assembly, including the amendments and 'horse trading' associated with changing eligibility criteria to satisfy legislators who wanted their counties excluded, resulted in an act that, in form and effect, is local," Martin wrote in her 32-page order.
Pro-voucher groups had countered that such claims over the "home rule" are moot because they said the provision does not apply to school boards, while the county does not have proper standing to sue over the school voucher program.
On Monday, Martin agreed that Nashville's school board did not have standing to sue and dismissed the board from the case. However, she said counties had a stake in public education.
"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," said Lee's spokesman Gillum Ferguson.
Other groups who had petitioned the court to argue in favor of the voucher program also objected to Martin's decision.
"This is an extremely disappointing decision, and unfairly penalizes the thousands of families who were hoping to utilize the ESA program," said Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee's state director for the American Federation for Children. "These families are desperately looking for options to help their children succeed academically."
American Federation for Children, a school choice group Education Secretary Betsy DeVos once chaired, had said earlier Monday that 2,200 children had applied for Tennessee's voucher program as of last week.
Other groups that had sued, however, praised Monday's decision.
"Chancellor Martin's ruling is an enormous victory for Tennessee public school students," said Chris Wood, a private Nashville attorney for the plaintiffs. "This unpopular voucher program was forced on two communities without their consent, and it threatened to drain public resources from already underfunded public schools."
The program — known as education savings accounts — would allow eligible Tennessee families to use up to $7,300 in public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other preapproved expenses.
State education officials had been working to implement the program in the upcoming school year. Applications for students were already being accepted until early May.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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