NASHVILLE, Tenn — Parents of public school children and community members in Nashville and Memphis filed a lawsuit Monday in the Chancery Court for Davidson County challenging the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law as an unconstitutional diversion of public education funding to private schools.
In the suit, McEwen v. Lee, the plaintiffs argue that moving millions of dollars intended for Memphis and Nashville public schools to private schools violates public school students’ rights to the adequate and equitable educational opportunities guaranteed under the Tennessee Constitution. The lawsuit also charges that the voucher law violates the constitution’s “Home Rule” provision, which prohibits the state legislature from passing laws that apply only to certain counties.
The Tennessee voucher program would siphon off over $7,500 per student – or over $375 million in the first five years – from funds appropriated by the General Assembly to maintain and support the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and Shelby County (Memphis) Schools, according to the lawsuit. The controversial state law could go into effect as early as the 2020-21 school year.
The voucher law passed by a single vote in May 2019, over the objections of legislators from Shelby and Davidson Counties, as well as others.
If the voucher program is implemented, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools will lose substantial sums from their already underfunded budgets, resulting in further cuts to educators, support staff, and other essential resources, the lawsuit states.
“We love my daughter’s school, but it is already underfunded,” said Roxanne McEwen, whose 10-year-old child is in fifth grade in MNPS. “There isn’t enough money for textbooks, technology, to pay teachers, or to keep class sizes down. Taking more money away from our schools is only going to make it worse. I joined this lawsuit because I want to be a voice for my child and for kids who don’t have a voice.”
“I believe that Shelby County Schools do not have enough funding to provide all children with the resources they need to learn. At one of my son’s middle school, they do not offer geometry, and one of my other sons did not have a science teacher for two years in a row,” said Tracy O’Connor, whose four children attend Shelby County Schools. “If the district loses more funds due to the voucher program, I worry that we will lose more guidance counselors, reading specialists and librarians, and there will be more cuts to the foreign language and STEM programs.”
The complaint highlights numerous ways in which private schools receiving public funds are not held to the same standards as Tennessee public schools, in violation of the state constitution’s requirement of a single system of public education. Private schools do not have to adhere to the numerous academic, accountability, and governance standards that public schools must meet. They can discriminate against students on the basis of religion, LGBTQ status, disability, income level, and other characteristics. And they are not required to provide special education services to students with disabilities.
“Public schools are open to all children, while private schools receiving voucher funds are not held to the same standards,” said Nashville mother Terry Jo Bichell. “My son is non-verbal and receives extensive special education and related services in his MNPS school, including being assigned a one-on-one paraprofessional. I do not know of a single private school in the state that would be willing or able to enroll a student like my son. Even if a private school was willing to enroll my son, we would have to waive his right to receive special education.”
The voucher law also violates the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement that the General Assembly appropriate first-year funding for each law it passes. No money was appropriated for the voucher law, and recent hearings have revealed that the Tennessee Department of Education used funds from an unrelated program to pay over $1 million to a private company for administration of the voucher program.
The plaintiffs are represented by Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate on the Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign. PFPS opposes all forms of private school vouchers and works to ensure that public funds are used exclusively to maintain, support and strengthen our nation’s public schools. The plaintiffs are also represented by the ACLU of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.
More information about this lawsuit is available here.