NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Following Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s announcement that the state immediately will begin implementing its controversial private school voucher program for the school year starting in just a few weeks, public school parents and community members in the targeted counties are going back to court to stop this sudden and unprecedented rollout.
The plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee, a pending 2020 lawsuit filed by Shelby and Davidson County residents that challenges the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law, filed an urgent motion Friday asking the Davidson County Chancery Court to block the state from rolling out vouchers for the 2022-2023 school year.
“This unconstitutional program will drain resources from our public schools, and our lawsuit challenging it has not yet been decided,” said plaintiff Roxanne McEwen, whose child is a student in Metro Nashville Public Schools. “Rushing to implement the voucher program before the court has spoken will only create needless chaos for our public schools and for Tennessee families.”
Friday’s motion explains the immediate and irreparable harm that would result from the state’s extremely rushed plan to hand out vouchers for the coming school year. Disbursing those funds, which are drawn from public school district budgets, would throw public schools into chaos weeks before the school year begins. And handing out vouchers that could be declared unconstitutional shortly thereafter would leave families that used them to enroll in private schools mired in uncertainty.
“The state cannot be permitted to recklessly barrel ahead with an unconstitutional program at the expense of Nashville and Memphis public schools that desperately need more, not less, funding and resources,” said Chris Wood, partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP. “We are again asking the court to enjoin the voucher program while the judges rule on the numerous constitutional and statutory violations asserted by the plaintiffs.”
This is the second time the McEwen plaintiffs have called on the chancery court to halt implementation of the voucher program before the state diverts taxpayer funds to unaccountable private schools. In 2020, the chancery court ruled in a companion case challenging the voucher law, Metro Government v. Tennessee Department of Education, that it violated the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution by targeting only Shelby and Davidson Counties without their local approval and prohibited the state from starting the program.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, but the state Supreme Court reversed it earlier this year in a split decision, sending the case back to the chancery court. The chancery court lifted its 2020 injunction of the voucher law on July 13 as a result of the Supreme Court decision. The state initially told the court that it had not decided on a course of action, but Governor Lee released a statement just hours later declaring that implementation would proceed immediately.
The plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee are represented by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, the ACLU of Tennessee, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Education Law Center. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center collaborate on the national Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign.
“There are numerous unresolved legal claims in both the McEwen and Metro Government lawsuits,” said Jessica Levin, senior attorney at Education Law Center and director of PFPS. “The temporary injunction motion filed by the McEwen plaintiffs on Friday focuses on their claim that the voucher law violates the Education Clause of the Tennessee Constitution – which requires the state to provide education solely through a system of public schools – by funding private schools outside that system.”
Private schools participating in the voucher program are not obligated to comply with the academic, accountability, and governance standards that apply to public schools. And unlike public schools, they can discriminate against students on the basis of religion, LGBTQ+ status, and other characteristics, as well as refuse to provide services such as special education for students with disabilities.
“Defunding public schools through voucher schemes like this one also disproportionately harms Black and brown children and children experiencing poverty, who have been overrepresented in public schools since private segregation academies were first funded by segregationist lawmakers across the South,” explained Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Children with the greatest needs, who are welcomed and served by our public schools, are left with fewer resources when the state acts to deplete the funds intended to educate all children. So not only is this law unconstitutional, it funds discrimination, and it is racially and economically unjust.”
“Taking money away from already underfunded public school districts and sending taxpayer dollars to private schools, many of which are religious, hurts Tennessee students,” said Lindsay Kee, interim director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “We will continue to stand with public school parents and students to fight this unconstitutional program until it is struck down for good.”
More information about McEwen v. Lee is available here.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.
The ACLU of Tennessee, the state affiliate of the national American Civil Liberties Union, is a private, non-profit, non-partisan public interest organization dedicated to defending and advancing civil liberties and civil rights through advocacy, coalition-building, litigation, legislative lobbying, community mobilization and public education. For more information, visit www.aclu-tn.org/.
Founded in 1973, Education Law Center is a national leader in advancing the rights of public school students to equal educational opportunity under state and federal law through litigation, policy, advocacy and research. For more information, visit www.edlawcenter.org/.
Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP is one of the world’s leading complex litigation firms representing plaintiffs in securities fraud, antitrust, corporate mergers and acquisitions, consumer and insurance fraud, multi-district litigation, and whistleblower protection cases. With 200 lawyers in 9 offices, Robbins Geller has obtained many of the largest securities, antitrust, and consumer class action recoveries in history, recovering tens of billions of dollars for victims of fraud and corporate wrongdoing. Robbins Geller attorneys are consistently recognized by courts, professional organizations and the media as leading lawyers in their fields of practice. Visit www.rgrdlaw.com/.