The Tennessean

Tennessee Supreme Court Declines to Rehear School Voucher Case

June 13, 2022

(The Tennessean)—The Tennessee Supreme Court has declined to rehear the case challenging the constitutionality of Gov. Bill Lee’s controversial school voucher program.

Davidson and Shelby county governments filed a petition asking the court to rehear the case following its May 18 ruling that found the program does not violate the the state constitution’s home rule provision by only applying to districts in those counties — a major win for Lee.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper argued the court did not consider that Metro Nashville Public Schools as the school system for both Nashville and Davidson County is part of a metropolitan form of government.

In an order issued Monday, the court said it had previously considered the issue and thoroughly reviewed the petition.

“The petition, therefore, is respectfully denied,” the court said in its one-paragraph order.

TJ Ducklo, Cooper’s chief communications officer, said the administration is “disappointed” in the court’s decision.

The voucher program singles out Davidson and Shelby counties to “effectively divert state funding for public schools to private schools,” and Cooper will advocate for “providing Metro Nashville Public Schools the resources it needs to effectively and safely educate our children,” Ducklo wrote in an email to The Tennessean Monday.

Metro Legal Director Wallace Dietz said in an email Monday the city is “evaluating next steps for the remaining claims” in its lawsuit.

Sean Braisted, spokesperson for Metro Schools, said the district also is disappointed in the ruling and will continue to monitor the case while touting the importance of public education for Nashville families.

Under the education savings account program, eligible students could choose to take public money for their education and apply it to private school tuition instead.

But only some students — specifically those in Metro Nashville and Shelby County public school districts — are part of the three-year pilot program approved narrowly by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2019.

The county governments immediately challenged the law arguing it violated the “home rule” provision of the Tennessee Constitution since it was narrowly tailored to their jurisdictions without their consent.

The state disagreed and instead argued that education policy is the state’s responsibility. As a result, they made the case that the local constitutional protections don’t apply in this case.

In the 3-2 ruling last month, the state’s highest court agreed with the Lee administration.

The court’s recent ruling sent the case back to the trial court to resolve whether the program violates the constitutional equal protection clause and public school students’ rights to adequate and equitable educational opportunities.

It also lifted an injunction blocking the state from moving ahead with the program, Samantha Fisher, spokesperson for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery told the Associated Press last month.

The Tennessee Department of Education has not been given a “go or no go” from the Attorney General’s Office yet though, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told The Tennessean last week.

The department is statutorily required to implement the program, but neither the department of the Governor’s Office have hinted at a timeline for doing so yet.

“A lot of parents are waiting for that information and I can imagine that it’s frustrating for everybody involved,” Schwinn said. “But we certainly want to make sure that we are being respectful of that [legal] process. We will fulfill the statutory responsibility when and if that injunction lefts in the future.”

Lee’s administration aims to “begin implementation as soon as possible” once the legal process is “fully resolved,” spokesperson Casey Black said Monday.