Tennessee's school voucher program is back in court Aug. 5, days before school starts (2023)

Tennessee's school voucher program is back in court Aug. 5, days before school starts (1)

Stephen JerkinsWPLN News (File)

Gov. Bill Lee has promoted school vouchers as a way of expanding choices in education.

Tennessee’s Education Savings Accountprogram will be heading back to court on Aug. 5. A motion for a temporary injunction to stop the roll-out was filed by the Shelby and Davidson County governments.

A separate motion was also filed on behalf of the parents in those communities. The court filings are part of a years-long legal battle over the legality of the state’s controversial push for school vouchers.

The program was ruled unconstitutional by a Nashville judge in 2020, but it has since been labeled fair game by the Tennessee Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision. New legal filings say otherwise.

More: After a 3-year legal battle, the state Supreme Court says a school voucher program can launch in Nashville and Memphis

“What we’ve said in our motion for temporary injunction, is that the voucher law violates the Tennessee constitution,” says Chris Wood, a partner with Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, the law firm representing families in Memphis and Nashville.

Wood says that the state’s education clause gives students a right to a “system of free public schools.” The firm’s argument is that taking public dollars to pay for private school tuition violates that right.

“Funneling taxpayer money to private schools is not a system of free public schools,” Wood says. “It’s a system of public schools, and sending taxpayer dollars to a separate system of private schools.”

Private schools aren’t required by state law to give equal access to every student. They also have different academic requirements than pubic schools.

“They’re also free to discriminate against students. If you’ve got a disability, they don’t have to accept you,” Wood says. “If you have a religious belief that they don’t agree with, they don’t have to accept you. They don’t have to accept you based on your gender identity or sexual orientation.”

A three-judge panel will hear the motions just days before the start of the new school year. Even if the state’s voucher program moves forward, the legal fight is expected to continue.

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