The Tennessee Education Savings Account law — Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher initiative — was declared unconstitutional on Monday evening by a Nashville chancellor.
At the center of the lawsuit, brought by Davidson and Shelby counties against the Tennessee Department of Education, was the interpretation of the state constitution’s Home Rule Amendment. The plaintiffs claimed that the school voucher law was unconstitutional because it singled out two counties without their consent.
Chris Wood, an attorney for the plaintiffs, celebrated the decision.
“Her ruling is an enormous victory for Tennessee public school students,” Wood told WPLN News. “This unconstitutional voucher program was forced onto two communities.”
He said he hopes the state will focus on funding under-resourced schools instead.
A spokesman for Lee said, “We strongly disagree with the court’s ruling and will swiftly appeal on behalf of Tennessee students who deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach to education.”
During the initial hearing, which took place last week, the state tried to argue that the Home Rule Amendment didn’t apply to school districts, because they are not counties or municipalities. State attorneys also argued that the legislation was crafted to apply to underperforming districts generally, not Metro Nashville or Shelby County in particular.
But Chancellor Anne Martin disagreed. She said lawmakers chose criteria, such as performance data from 2015, 2017 and 2018 specifically, so that only those two districts would be affected, even if others do worse later.
“The Court finds, based upon the particular criteria in the ESA Act, and upon the legislative history detailing the extensive tweaking of the eligibility criteria in order to eliminate certain school districts to satisfy legislators (rather than tweaking to enhance the merits of the Act) that the legislation is local in form and effect,” Martin ruled. “Additionally, the legislative history of the General Assembly’s consideration and passage of the ESA Act confirms that the Act was intended, and specifically designed, to apply to MNPS and SCS, and only MNPS and SCS.”
Therefore, Martin said, it violated the amendment.
She granted permission for the state to immediately appeal the decision.