A court panel sided with the state on Wednesday and dismissed the remaining legal claims raised in two lawsuits challenging Tennessee’s private school voucher law.
Judges have ruled that the metropolitan governments of Nashville and Shelby County, as well as a group of parents who oppose vouchers, have no legal standing to challenge the 2019 College Savings Accounts Act of the Tennessee, which provides money to taxpayers to pay private school tuition.
Advocates of the vouchers were quick to hail the decision by the three-judge Davidson County Chancery Court panel as a victory for parents who want more educational choice for their children.
“Today is a great day for education freedom in Tennessee,” said Justin Owen, president of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, one of several groups involved in the case.
But the decision could also position the nearly 3-year-old legal dispute for a hearing in a higher court.
“We are reviewing the opinion and will discuss a possible appeal when we return to work next week,” said Wally Dietz, chief legal officer for Metro Nashville.
The justices rejected the argument that both governments suffer financial harm by funding their local public schools when students choose to opt out and enroll in private schools, taking their funding with them.
In a 26-page ruling, they cited a provision of the law that, subject to appropriation by the legislature, replaces any funding lost through vouchers through a facility improvement grant program. schools for the first three years.
Thus, write the judges, “the claims of the plaintiffs are not yet ripe because the ESA replaces the funds diverted for at least three years”.
But their decision does not necessarily close the case.
“We are disappointed with the court order and disagree with its findings,” said Chris Wood, a Nashville attorney representing parents and taxpayers in a second lawsuit against the law. “We are considering our options, which include appealing the court’s decision.”
The decision came from Chancellor Anne Martin, Justice Tammy Harrington and Justice Valerie Smith under a new state law requiring constitutional questions to be heard by three justices representing each of the three major divisions of the state. state instead of a single Nashville-based judge.
But Martin, the Nashville judge who initially declared the law unconstitutional in 2020, wrote that while she agreed on the standing issue, she dissented on other issues, including the plaintiffs’ arguments that vouchers would create unequal education systems. The state constitution stipulates that Tennessee is obligated to maintain a free public school system that provides equal educational opportunities to its residents.
Wednesday’s ruling is the latest in the legal dispute after the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the troubled bond law in May.
The high court overturned another argument that the law was unconstitutional because it only applied to Davidson and Shelby counties, without local approval. This decision paved the way for the program to launch this school year. Then, in September, the state attorney general’s office urged the panel to dismiss all remaining legal challenges.
A spokeswoman for Governor Bill Lee, who lobbied for the voucher law, did not immediately respond when asked for comment.
Marta Aldrich is senior correspondent and covers the Chalkbeat Tennessee State House. Contact her at [email protected]