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Court to hear arguments against voucher program opposed by local school officials

Brandon Paykamian • Apr 29, 2020 at 8:30 AM

Local school officials will be watching closely as the Chancery Court for Davidson County hears oral arguments in two cases Wednesday challenging the constitutionality of the state’s Education Savings Account pilot program passed last year.

Critics of the initiative say the program diverts public education funding to private schools. It only applies to Nashville- and Memphis-area students, which the American Civil Liberties Union says is in violation of the Tennessee Constitution and state statutes.

At the request of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, the program will start issuing vouchers this fall, a year earlier than the law initially required. Participating families in Memphis and Nashville will receive $7,000 per child from the state to send students to private schools.

Lee believes the voucher program will expand students’ access to specialized and “high-quality education.”

It has been met with opposition from the Johnson City Board of Education since the idea was first conceived.

“We are against public tax dollars being diverted to support private school voucher programs when funding for public education is scarce. The program only applies to Nashville and Memphis students, but tax funding is collected from all taxpayers across the state,” Johnson City Schools Superintendent Steve Barnett said.

The plaintiffs in the case are made up of public school parents and residents from Nashville and Memphis seeking a temporary injunction to stop the state from implementing the voucher program until the court rules on the constitutionality of the law. They will be represented by the ACLU of Tennessee, Robbins Geller Rudman and Dowd LLP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center.

The court will also hear oral arguments for summary judgement in a separate lawsuit challenging the voucher law brought by Davidson and Shelby Counties and the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education.

Johnson City Education Association President Joe Crabtree said “the overwhelming majority of Tennesseans stand against the use of public tax dollars being moved away from public schools and used for private schools.” He pointed out that Tennessee currently ranks 45th in the nation in per-pupil spending and is already “underfunded to the tune of over $1.5 billion.”

“The voucher program passed by the Tennessee House and Senate will divert millions of dollars that are already critically needed within our public schools,” he said in an emailed statement. “The idea of taking money away from schools and school systems that are struggling is a direct contradiction of what should be happening. To help struggling schools, we must provide better funding, more personnel to lower class sizes, and bring in additional resources and people like counselors, social workers, etc., to improve these schools.”

Crabtree said he believes there were issues with how the law was passed in the first place. When a vote finally took place in the Tennessee House of Representatives on April 23, 2019, it was a tied vote at 49-49, but that changed soon after.

“After that, the House Speaker Glen Casada held the vote open for over 40 minutes while his staff tried to persuade another lawmaker to change their vote. Many news outlets have reported since that time of former Speaker Casada working to make deals in order to get the legislation passed. In the end, Speaker Casada was able to get one lawmaker to change their vote,” Crabtree said. “This incident is ethically questionable and goes against everything that our legislators should believe about speaking for their constituents.”

Crabtree said he hopes the courts will find the legislation unconstitutional, which would stop the implementation of the program.

“Under the Tennessee Constitution, lawmakers are forbidden from creating legislation that would single out one or two areas of the state and excluding everyone else,” Crabtree pointed out. “Ultimately, we want to see the voucher legislation ruled unconstitutional.”

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