On March 2, 2020, ACLU-TN and our partners filed a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s unconstitutional Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law. The lawsuit was filed in the Davidson County Chancery Court on behalf of public-school parents and community members in Nashville and Memphis.
The Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program, also known as school vouchers, passed the Tennessee state legislature in May 2019. The voucher law authorizes critical funding from public schools in Shelby and Davidson Counties to be diverted to private schools.
The voucher law violates the Basic Education Program (BEP), the state’s school funding statute that allows for the allocation of taxpayer dollars to maintain and support the state’s public schools, by diverting funds from public schools to private schools.
The voucher law also violates Tennessee’s Constitution and state law by allowing funds to be diverted to private schools that do not adhere to the same education and civil rights protections as Tennessee’s public schools. Public schools in Tennessee must meet state and federal requirements regarding academics, accountability, governance, and non-discrimination standards, whereas private schools are excluded from meeting these requirements.
The law is also unconstitutional because it was applied only to Shelby and Davidson counties, without local approval from either county. This is a violation of the “home rule” provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits imposition of a law that has local effect without local approval.
Public schools in Shelby and Davidson counties already have limited financial resources and the voucher law would allow for the siphoning off more than $7,500 per student. It is imperative for this critical funding to stay within the public education system to support and maintain Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools.
Davidson and Shelby counties filed a separate lawsuit challenging the voucher law.
On March 27, 2020, the counties filed a motion for summary judgement and on April 3, 2020, ACLU-TN and our partners filed a motion to halt implementation of the law. The Chancery Court heard oral arguments on the motions in both cases on April 29, 2020.
On May 4, 2020, Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin granted the counties’ motion for summary judgement and enjoined the state from implementing and enforcing the voucher law.
The state appealed, requesting that the voucher law continue to be implemented while their appeal was pending. Chancellor Martin denied the defendants’ request, as did the Tennessee Supreme Court.
On September 29, 2020, the Court of Appeals issued an opinion upholding the trial court’s ruling that the voucher laws violate the home rule provision.
The Tennessee Supreme Court is reviewing the Court of Appeals decision and heard oral arguments on June 3, 2021.
After arguments before the Tennessee Supreme Court, Justice Clark died. The Tennessee Supreme Court did not issue a decision and instead on December 17, 2021 issued an order calling for the re- argument of the appeal on February 24, 2022. The Court appointed Judge Thomas R. Frierson from the Court of Appeals as an interim justice for the argument.
Roxanne McEwen, David P. Bichell, Terry Jo Bichell, Lisa Mingrone, Claudia Russell, Inez Williams, Sheron Davenport, Heather Kenny, Elise Mcintosh, Tracy O'Connor, and Apryle Young
Bill Lee, Penny Schwinn, Lillian Hartgrove, Robert Eby, Nick Darnell, Mike Edwards, Gordon Ferguson, Elissa Kim, Nate Morrow, Larry Jensen, Mike Krause, Darrell Cobbins
ACLU-TN: Thomas H. Castelli, Stella Yarbrough
Education Law Center: David G. Sciarra, Wendy Lecker, Jessica Levin
Southern Poverty Law Center: Sophia Mire Hill
Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP: Chris Wood