Judge strikes down Education Saving Account program

Bill Lee
Posted at 9:23 PM, May 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-04 22:59:34-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Davidson County judge stopped Governor Bill Lee's education savings account program, calling it unconstitutional.

Chancellor Anne C. Martin ruled Monday night that because the law only applies to students in Davidson and Shelby Counties, it violates the "Home Rule" provision.

It prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws that target specific counties without local approval. The School Vouchers uses tax payer money and gives it to families so their children can attend private school.

The much-debated program prompted two lawsuits which echoed previous concerns that the program illegally diverts public tax dollars to private schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed a complaint on behalf of several eligible parents who live in school districts where the voucher program would apply. The ACLU also alleged the voucher law shouldn't be allowed because tax dollars would be spent on private schools that could discriminate against certain students.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper said, “Nashville, like other cities and counties, 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 and will continue to advocate for both our MNPS students and educators.”

“This is an important ruling for local governments in Tennessee,” said Metro Director of Law, Bob Cooper. “It reaffirms the constitutional right of counties and cities to be free of state legislation that targets select jurisdictions without their approval.”

The case will now head to the supreme court.

Plaintiff Roxanne McEwen, a public school parent in Nashville told the Southern Poverty Law Center, “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. 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.”

But many disagree with the judge's decision.

The Beacon Center released the statement below following the ruling:

The Beacon Center respectfully disagrees with today's ruling from the Davidson County Chancellory Court that the ESA program is unconstitutional. This decision harms children in Davidson and Shelby County who are looking for a lifeline to receive a quality education starting this upcoming fall.
Educational choice has consistently been deemed constitutional by courts across the country; this program does not unconstitutionally single out or even apply to specific cities or counties, it applies to underperforming school districts. For this reason, Beacon believes this program will ultimately be upheld by the courts despite today's setback. Beacon CEO Justin Owen stated, "While we are disappointed about today's ruling, the fight is far from over. Beacon will continue to do everything we can to fight on behalf of families all the way to the state Supreme Court to ensure that they are able to participate in this program this fall and beyond, just as Gov. Lee and the legislature intended."

Shaka Mitchell, State Director of the American Federation for Children released the following statement:

“This is an extremely disappointing decision, and unfairly penalizes the thousands of families who were hoping to utilize the ESA program. These families are desperately looking for options to help their children succeed academically. This law was proposed by Governor Bill Lee, passed the Tennessee General Assembly, and poll after poll has shown that Tennessee families in our struggling school systems support it. The number of parents that have applied thus far shows that this was a needed educational lifeline for families in Nashville and Memphis. As the enrollment period is currently underway, this creates regrettable confusion for those families who had already applied or were preparing to apply. We urge the Attorney General to take the necessary next steps to appeal, defend, and protect the program.”

Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) issued the following statement:

"Public school tax dollars are meant for public schools, to serve every kid with a high quality education regardless of their zip code. Private school vouchers break that shared promise by defunding our neighborhood schools, student by student and brick by brick. That’s why so many school districts wanted no part of this faulty program.But tonight, a judge ruled it is unconstitutional for the legislature to single out school districts and force a program on them that no one wants. The ruling is a victory for public schools in Shelby County, Nashville and families who believe in the promise of public education across the state."


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