Judge weighs Tennessee voucher program arguments
Apr 29, 2020 By KIMBERLEE KRUESI Associated Press NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee judge on Wednesday weighed a wide range of arguments surrounding the legal battle over the state's much-debated school voucher program, noting that she plans on making a decision soon to ensure parents have enough time to plan ahead for the 2020-21 school year. The program — known as education savings accounts — would allow eligible families to use public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other preapproved expenses. State education officials are currently working to implement the program in the upcoming school year after Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law in 2019. Applications for students are already being accepted. However, the program has faced two lawsuits. The first was filed by officials in Nashville and Shelby County —representing the only areas where the voucher program would only apply. The second was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Education Law Center. The state and other voucher advocates — which include the Liberty Justice Center, the Institute for Justice and the Beacon Center of Tennessee — have since asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. They argue that it’s important to represent qualifying families who want to sign up for the voucher program next school year. “It is not preferable we’re having this conversation April 29,” said Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin. “Parents are having to make decisions.” A key contention revolves around an allegation that the state’s voucher program is illegal under the Tennessee constitution’s “home rule.” Plaintiffs argue Republican lawmakers did not receive local consent when drawing legislation affecting local communities. Pro-voucher groups countered Wednesday that such claims over the “home rule” are moot because they argue the provision does not apply to school boards, while the county does not have proper standing to sue over the school voucher program. Additional concerns have been raised about the law’s possible allowance of discrimination and funding mechanisms. Currently, the voucher law requires participating private schools to agree they won’t discriminate against students on the basis of race, color or national origin. Yet there is no such requirement on the basis of sex, religion or disability. Under the voucher program, families would get up to $7,300 in state education money each year for removing their student from public school and using those tax dollars to help cover the cost of sending the student to a preapproved private school. The program is set to handle up to 5,000 students during the first year. More than 50 private schools have been approved to participate in the program.