A legal motion filed Friday in Davidson County asks the courts to halt the implementation of the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) Program.
The motion was filed by the ACLU of Tennessee and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of parents and community members in Shelby and Davidson County who have filed a lawsuit against the program.
The motion asks the Chancery Court for Davidson County for a temporary injunction to “stop the implementation of the law” because it would “illegally siphon much-needed taxpayer funds away from” public schools.
“Schools throughout Tennessee have been chronically underfunded for years. Diverting money to pay for private school vouchers in Shelby County and Nashville is not going to solve this problem, and will only exacerbate the challenges these districts face to provide all students with a quality education,” said Chris Wood, partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, which joined the ACLU of Tennessee and the Southern Poverty Law Center in filing the initial lawsuit.
The ESA voucher program was originally scheduled to begin during the 2021-2022 school year, but Gov. Bill Lee’s administration would like to begin distributing vouchers as early as this fall.
The ESA program passed through the Tennessee Legislature during the first session of the 111th General Assembly in 2019, and was the signature piece of legislation of the newly-elected Lee, The Tennessee Star reported.
The program is voluntary and its enrollment is limited to a total of 5,000 students in the first year and increasing by 2,500 students per year to a total of 15,000 students in the fifth and subsequent years of the program. It’s also limited to the two districts of Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Public Schools, since both meet the criteria of having 10 or more priority schools and are among the bottom 10 percent of schools.
However, the ACLU of Tennessee and the Southern Poverty Law Center said in their new legal motion that this last provision violates the Tennessee Constitution’s “Home Rule,” which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws that apply only to certain counties.
They also argue that the program violates constitutional requirements surrounding the appropriation of public money, since the legislature failed to appropriate funds for the first year of the program but paid more than $1 million to a private company for its administration.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s office also filed a lawsuit against the program earlier this year, but the Beacon Center of Tennessee filed a motion to intervene in the case in order to defend the program.
“Despite the mayor’s claims, this program is constitutional, and we will do everything in our power to make sure families can benefit from it starting this fall,” said Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen. “When it comes to receiving a quality education, our kids cannot wait. The families we are representing are the most impacted by this program, and their voices should be heard.”
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