A Nashville judge is telling the state Department of Education to put its voucher program on pause while its legal status is being sorted out.
Chancellor Anne Martin ruled Thursday afternoon that education officials cannot move ahead with plans to start awarding vouchers for private school tuition later this month. She also chastised the Department of Education for not warning parents the program is in jeopardy.
“Whatever happens on appeal will happen,” Martin said. “But the current status is the program is not going forward, and parents need to be told and to have a Plan B.”
Martin ruled earlier this week that the program violates the state constitution because it was designed to apply only to Davidson and Shelby counties, against their wishes.
The state has appealed, and it argues the program, which Gov. Bill Lee hopes can begin during the upcoming school year, should be allowed to continue operating in the background while higher courts weigh their arguments. Otherwise, parents and students will be harmed by losing their preferred choice of school next year, and private schools could be hurt by the loss of revenue.
But Martin says the real problem is the state has proceeded as if the program will roll out on time — even after she’s clearly stated it’s illegal. In her ruling, she ordered education officials to notify visitors to the voucher website that the program’s future is in doubt. She also says the state can’t process voucher applications or make any awards until appeals courts have ruled.
“The court also expects the state defendants to be consistent with that messaging when speaking to the public,” Martin said, noting that officials, including Lee, had made statements since her ruling suggesting the program was still on.
But Lee says the state was only taking applications and had not been trying to circumvent the court.
“The deadline ends today,” he says. “We didn’t promote that, but if applications were coming in we continued to receive those applications but not process them.”