Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program took another hit Tuesday, with the Tennessee Court of Appeals upholding a lower court’s decision that the controversial plan is unconstitutional.
A three-member panel of the Court of Appeals upheld a previous decision by Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Anne Martin, who ruled against the school-voucher law because it only applies to Memphis and Nashville.
The state attorney general quickly appealed that decision, hoping to kick off the program with the 2020-21 school year, but the courts blocked the state from receiving applications and preparing for the program’s kickoff for this academic year.
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PREVIOUSLY: Judge rules Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program unconstitutional
In its appeal, the state argued that education policy is the state’s responsibility — and that the local constitutional protections, known as “home rule,” don’t apply in this case. Martin had ruled that it violated the home rule provision since the legislature imposed the law on just two counties without their say.
The program would allow students in Davidson and Shelby school districts to attend private schools and pay for it, in part, by with public funds. The General Assembly passed the controversial law in 2019 over the objections of officials in Davidson and Shelby counties. The education savings account program is one of Lee’s signature education initiatives.
After a remote hearing in May, Martin ruled the state could no longer accept applications and ordered the program’s website to say that applications were closed, and since the program’s fate was undetermined, parents should seek a backup plan. Even returning a phone call or email about the program was prohibited.
In June, the state Supreme Court declined to take up the case directly.
RELATED: Tennessee can’t launch Education Savings Account program while appeal is pending, court says
Opponents say the law will unfairly divert “scarce” public funding in some of the state’s most cash-strapped districts to private schools. Supporters of the law insist it’s a win for parents and their ability to choose where their children get an education, especially in areas with historically low test scores and schools considered failing by the state.
“Davidson and Shelby counties sued the State of Tennessee to challenge the constitutionality of the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program. The trial court found that both counties had standing and that the act was unconstitutional,” said Judge Andy Bennett, who delivered the court’s opinion Tuesday. “The State and intervening defendants appealed. We affirm.”
Democrats quickly praised the appellate court decision.
“I support educational options with a record of success – vouchers have failed in IN, WI, & AZ,” state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said on Twitter. “Let’s fully fund our public schools. Our kids deserve more.”
This is BIG. The @TNSenateDems made it clear during debate on this bill that this legislation was unconstitutional. I support educational options with a record of success- vouchers have failed in IN, WI, & AZ. Let’s fully fund our public schools. Our kids deserve more. #TNleg https://t.co/X3koef8gTe
— Senator Raumesh Akbari (@SenAkbari) September 29, 2020
A spokesperson for Lee did not immediately return a request for comment. But the state is expected to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Shaka Mitchell, the Tennessee state director of the American Federation for Children, previously characterized the lower court’s decision as putting “putting the educational futures of thousands of kids in jeopardy.”
In an email Tuesday, Mitchell said he looks forward to the state appealing the latest decision.
“The Education Savings Account program is, and always has been, a program to benefit kids and parents and empower them to make the best decision for their family,” Mitchell said in an email to The Tennessean. “Ultimately, all parents want their child to go to a good school — one that is right for them. We disagree with the conclusions reached by the Tennessee Court of Appeals and look forward to the State and our partners taking the next and final step of appealing to the Tennessee Supreme Court.”
Spokespeople for Metro Nashville Public Schools or the city also did not immediately return requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
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Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Court of Appeals upholds decision finding Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program unconstitutional