Judge strikes down school voucher law, declaring it unconstitutional

Updated: May. 5, 2020 at 5:14 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A judge delivered a major blow to Tennessee’s school voucher law, declaring it unconstitutional.

Opponents of the law hailed the ruling as a major victory, while supporters vowed to continue fighting for it.

The Education Savings Account Act (ESA), which was a centerpiece of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s education reform plan, was steeped in controversy from the beginning.

It was set to launch this fall.

In striking down the law, the judge also put its implementation on hold as the appeal process plays out.

The law was designed to give parents of students at low-performing schools a spending account to pay for their child to attend a private school.

But the judge, Nashville Chancellor Anne C. Martin, struck down the law, calling it “unconstitutional, unlawful, and unenforceable.”

State senator and attorney Brian Kelsey, who voted in favor of the law, defended it in court on behalf of the Liberty Justice Center.

“The state constitution says the legislature cannot file a bill affecting ‘a particular county,’ and ‘a particular county’ clearly means one county. This bill affected two counties: Shelby and Davidson,” said Kelsey.

Martin didn’t buy that argument. In her ruling, she said the law violated the state constitution’s 1953 Home Rule Amendment, which prohibits state lawmakers from targeting one or two counties without approval of the local government or citizens of those counties.

Lee’s office says they “strongly disagree” with the judge and “will swiftly appeal.”

“This ruling is not the end of the case,” said Kelsey.

He said they will appeal to the court of appeals and, if necessary, the state supreme court.

“Don’t lose heart, this is just round one. We’ve got two rounds to go and we fully plan to do everything we can to ensure that these parents and students in schools can start to enroll in the program this August,” said Kelsey.

One of the biggest criticisms of the law is that it only impacts Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Schools.

“No other school districts, have a huge number of failing schools like Nashville and like Shelby County have,” said Kelsey. “I know many families, for whom the public school system is working out great for one child, but the other child might have different needs and that's why they need an education savings account to give them those opportunities.”

Opponents of the law, including State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, say what students in underserved communities in Shelby County need are more resources.

“I get so tired of hearing, you know, people from outside this community saying ‘Hey, let us come in here and save these poor little black children.’ No. Give us the resources so that we can save our own children,” said Parkinson. “If the policies are so great, then why are these affluent communities not getting these policies? Because if they’re so great, everybody would want them. But they know if these policies are directed into their communities, it would devastate their public school system.”

The Shelby County government joined the Nashville Davidson government in challenging the law.

SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray called striking down the ruling a huge victory.

”This is a huge victory for Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Schools as we champion public education and equitable funding in Tennessee,” Ray. “Since the voucher program was originally proposed, the Shelby County School Board continued to adamantly caution lawmakers of the potential negative effects the bill would have on the district.”

The judge also issued an injunction, preventing the state from implementing the program. But she also allowed her ruling to be appealed right away.

The ESA Act was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Lee in May 2019.

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