TN Supreme Court Says Governor Lee’s Voucher Program Not a Violation of Home Rule Protections - Tennessee Conservative (2023)

Image Credit: Gov. Bill Lee / Facebook & Thomas R Machnitzki / CC

The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –

The Tennessee Supreme Court has overturned the decisions of lower courts and has found that Governor Lee’s school voucher program is, in fact, not a violation of home rule protections.

Opponents of the program have said that it is a violation of those protections because it only affects Davidson and Shelby Counties.

The program was passed by a slim majority three years ago. A decision was finally made in the Supreme Court case after the court opted to rehear arguments after dealing with last year’s death of Justice Connie Clark.

They released their 3-2 decision on Thursday; Chief Justice Roger Page and Justice Jeff Bivens voted that it was not a violation, along with Court of Appeals Judge Skip Frierson, who was sitting in on the case. Justices Sharon Lee and Holly Kirby dissented.

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The decision overturned rulings by a Davidson County chancellor and the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

The court agreed with lower courts that Metro Nashville Council and Shelby County had standing to bring their claim but held that the education savings account program is not “unconstitutional” based on the Home Rule Amendment, which requires that local governments be allowed to vote or hold referendums on legislative action that applies to only one or two counties statewide.

In response to the decision, Governor Lee tweeted, “Every child deserves a high-quality education, and today’s Tennessee Supreme Court opinion on ESAs puts parents in Memphis and Nashville one step closer to finding the best education fit for their children.”

Lt. Governor Randy McNally said in a statement, “It is critically important parents have as many choices as possible in educating their children. I am confident the state will continue winning in the courts on this legislation and that parents and students will soon be able to access this much-needed program.”

The program was aimed at allowing low-income students in low-performing schools in Davidson and Shelby counties to use vouchers to attend a school of their choice. Those students were set to receive approximately $7,000 to choose their school even though, at that point, schools in Shelby County spent $13,000 per student each year and Nashville schools spent $16,000 per student.

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The Senate Democratic Caucus blasted the Supreme Court’s decision in a statement.

“Private school vouchers, paid for with public school tax dollars, do not work and this scheme has failed students every place it has been tried. In this decision, the Supreme Court erased constitutional protections for local control and years of precedent Not only does this decision usher in a terrible education policy, but it invites more political meddling that surely results in local governments losing freedom and independence from state interference,” the statement said.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s statement on the said that the court’s decision was a “major step forward” but warned there are still more court proceedings ahead.

“The Education Savings Account program has always been about helping Tennessee students — giving eligible families a choice in education, an opportunity they currently do not have. It challenged the status quo — a move that is always met with resistance. We applaud the Court’s decision that this pilot program is indeed constitutional,” Slatery said.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee also applauded the decision in a statement from President and CEO Justin Owen.

“We are so pleased that the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed today what we have always known: The ESA law is not a violation of the Tennessee Constitution’s Home Rule Amendment. We are fully confident after this decision that families in Nashville and Memphis will finally get the choice opportunities that they deserve,” Owen said.

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Tennessee State Director for the American Federation for Children, John Patton, also hailed the decision in a statement.

“The Tennessee Supreme Court made the right decision today by declaring that the Education Savings Account program does not violate the home rule amendment.

“We are heartened by the decision and look forward to the next steps for the program. School choice programs work. They empower parents with the resources to find schools that better fit their unique needs and they foster innovation.

“These programs encourage both private and public schools to create new and better options for all students. At the American Federation for Children, we remain focused on students, not systems, and we will always advocate to empower families to make the best decision for their kids.”

Following is a release from the Administrative Office of the Courts:

In an opinion released today, the Tennessee Supreme Court determined that, while two Tennessee county governments had standing to challenge the Education Savings Account Pilot Program (the “ESA Act”), the Act is not rendered unconstitutional by the Home Rule Amendment, article XI, section 9, of the Tennessee Constitution.

In 2019, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted ESA Act. The Act establishes a program allowing a limited number of eligible students to directly receive their share of state and local education funds, which would ordinarily be provided to the public school system they attend, to pay for a private school education and associated expenses.

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The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Shelby County Government, and Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education filed a declaratory judgment action that named as defendants Governor Bill Lee, the Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner, and the Tennessee Department of Education. The trial court also allowed additional parties to intervene and participate as defendants. The complaint alleged that the ESA Act violates several provisions of the Tennessee Constitution, including the Home Rule Amendment, the equal protection clauses, and the education clause.

Defendants filed separate motions challenging Plaintiffs’ standing to pursue the claims presented and the legal sufficiency of those claims. Plaintiffs, in turn, filed a motion for summary judgment with respect to their Home Rule Amendment claim. The trial court determined that the two county plaintiffs had standing to pursue the claims, but it dismissed the Metro School Board as a plaintiff for lack of standing. The trial court also granted the motion for summary judgment concluding that the ESA Act violates the Home Rule Amendment and enjoined the State from implementing the Act. The trial court reserved ruling on Defendants’ challenges to the equal protection and education clause claims.

The trial court granted Defendants permission to seek an interlocutory appeal, and the Court of Appeals granted Defendants’ applications for appeal. The intermediate appellate court affirmed the trial court, holding that Metro and Shelby County had standing to challenge the ESA Act under the Home Rule Amendment and that the Act was unconstitutional pursuant to the Home Rule Amendment.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Defendants’ applications for permission to appeal. Because it is an interlocutory appeal, the issues before the Court were limited to the constitutionality of the ESA Act under the Home Rule Amendment and Plaintiffs’ standing to bring that challenge. The Supreme Court agreed with both the trial court and the Court of Appeals that Plaintiffs Metro and Shelby County had standing to bring their Home Rule Amendment Claim. However, the Supreme Court, after reviewing the applicable constitutional language, held that the ESA Act is not rendered unconstitutional by the Home Rule Amendment because the Act is not “applicable to” the Plaintiff counties for purposes of the Amendment. The majority concluded that the ESA Act is not applicable to the Plaintiff counties because the Act regulates or governs the conduct of the local education agencies and not the counties. Thus, the Act does not violate the Home Rule Amendment. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed, in part, and reversed, in part, the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the trial court for the dismissal of the Home Rule Amendment claim and for consideration of Plaintiffs’ remaining claims.

Justice Sharon G. Lee and Justice Holly Kirby joined in a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part. They agreed with the Court that Metro and Shelby County had standing to challenge the ESA Act but concluded that the Act violates the Home Rule Amendment. In their view, the ESA Act substantially affects Metro and Shelby County’s ability to self-govern and decide school funding issues. Under the ESA Act, only Metro and Shelby County and no other counties in the state must pay for students who leave public schools and use their vouchers for private school tuition. Because the ESA Act is local in effect and application, and because the Act gives Metro and Shelby County no choice in the matter, it violates the Home Rule Amendment.

To read the majority opinion inMetropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, et al. v. Tennessee Department of Education, et al., authored by Chief Justice Roger A. Page, and theseparate opinionauthored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, visit the opinions section

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About the Author:Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative~Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career. Most recently, he served as Deputy Director for theirflagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in theHerald Citizen, theCrossville ChronicleandThe Oracleamong others. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History.Contact Jason


Are vouchers legal in Tennessee? ›

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.

Who qualifies for TN vouchers? ›

The program's eligibility requirements are limited to families who make less than double the federal guidelines to qualify for free lunch, about $60,000 annually for a family of three or $72,000 annually for a family of four, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2022 income eligibility guidelines.

Does Tennessee have school vouchers? ›

It allows eligible families to use up to $7,300 of public tax dollars for private school tuition and other fees. SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov.

Does Tennessee have a school choice program? ›

School Choice Options In Tennessee

Families in Tennessee can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling.

What is the ESA program in Tennessee? ›

The ESA program allows eligible students who are zoned to attend a Shelby County district school, a Metro Nashville public school, or a school that was in the Achievement School District (ASD) to use state and local money toward education expenses, including tuition and/or fees at approved private schools.

How does the voucher system work? ›

States offer school voucher programs as a way to give parents choices in what school their child attends. Parents receive funds to use toward the cost of private school. (Not all states allow vouchers to be used at schools affiliated with a religion, however.) In some cases, they may also be used for homeschooling.

How much is the voucher program? ›

Voucher Program Amount

Under the program, DepEd spends an average of PHP18,300 per voucher recipient but, based on location, the sum ranges from PHP17,500 to PHP22,500. In addition, it varies based on the senior high school's location.

Can you live in one school district and go to another in Tennessee? ›

Tennessee has more than 1,700 public schools. In Tennessee, a 2021 bill required all school districts to offer an open enrollment period by fall 2022. This expansion of open enrollment means that parents may be able to transfer their child to any public school, regardless of where they live.

Does Tennessee have magnet schools? ›

Tennessee has several magnet schools. For example, the Hamilton County School District, Knox County School District, Metropolitan Nashville Public School District, Rutherford County School District, and Shelby County School District all offer magnet choices, among others.

Does Tennessee have open enrollment for schools? ›

Some districts have open-enrollment schools which means, based on the policies of the district, parents may elect to send their child to a school different from their assigned, zoned school. Q: Does my student need a social security number to enroll in a Tennessee public school?

What are school vouchers and why are they so controversial? ›

For proponents, vouchers offer students in failing schools access to greater educational opportunities in private schools. On the other side of the debate, many experts assert that vouchers, in the larger spectrum, will cause far more harm than good.

What is the best school district in Tennessee? ›

Top School Districts in Tennessee, 2020
46 more rows

How do Tennessee schools rank nationally? ›

Education Rankings
33Tennessee Tennessee31
34Texas Texas35
35Oregon Oregon37
36Kentucky Kentucky33
48 more rows

What is an ESA application? ›

An ESA letter is an official document signed by a licensed mental health professional. An ESA letter can also be prescribed by other health professionals who have familiarity with an individual's medical condition or a person's disability, such as a general practitioner or a psychiatrist.

How do education savings accounts work? ›

With this account: Account earnings can grow tax-deferred. Withdrawals are tax-free when used for qualified education expenses. Contributions can be made to an ESA and a 529 plan for the same beneficiary in the same year.

What are the cons of vouchers? ›

School vouchers funnel money away from already-struggling public schools and children and redistribute tax dollars to private schools and middle-class children. School vouchers fail to accommodate and support disabled and special-needs students. School vouchers do not improve students' academic performance.

Why do people oppose vouchers? ›

California voters, parents and teachers do not support school voucher programs because they hurt students and schools by draining scarce resources away from public education.

How much is the SHS voucher? ›

Voucher recipients from public/DepEd JHS who will enroll in a non-DepEd SHS located in the National Capital Region (NCR) will receive a full voucher amount of PhP 22,500.

Why did our government offered the voucher system? ›

The objective of a voucher program is to extend the financial support from the government to these other education providers and thus give all parents, regardless of income, the opportunity to choose the school that best suits their preferences.

What is SHS voucher program? ›

Senior High School Voucher Program (SHS VP) is a program of financial assistance wherein subsidies in the form of vouchers are provided to qualified SHS learners in participating private or non-DepEd public SHSs.

What is qualified voucher recipient? ›

Qualified Voucher Recipient (QVR) – This refers to a Grade 10 completer who is eligible to avail of the voucher in SY 2020-2021 because they are either an automatically qualified learner or a QVA. f. Voucher Applicant (VA) – This refers to a Grade 10 completer who needs to apply to qualify for a voucher. g.

What is the oldest age you can attend high school Tennessee? ›

StateAge of required school attendanceMaximum age limit to which free education must be offered
South Carolina5 to 1722
South Dakota6 to 1821
Tennessee6 to 18
Texas6 to 1926
89 more rows

What year did kindergarten become mandatory in Tennessee? ›

(d) No child shall be eligible to enter first grade after July 1, 1993, without having attended an approved kindergarten program; provided, that a child meeting the requirements of the state board of education for transfer or admission, as determined by the commissioner, may be admitted by an LEA, notwithstanding any ...

Can one parent enroll a child's in school without the other parents permission? ›

Can a parent change a child's school without the other parent's consent? Family Law. Can a parent change a child's school without the other parent's consent? A parent cannot unilaterally change their child's school without the consent of anyone else who holds Parental Responsibility (usually the child's other parent).

What are the 3 most common themes in magnet schools? ›

One of the most common themes for magnet schools is STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Magnet schools can also focus on various vocational or career paths, certain languages, and even the arts. Though magnet schools often have this kind of curricular focus, they still offer a comprehensive education.

How many magnet schools are in the US? ›

In the 2019/20 school year, there were 3,497 magnet schools throughout the United States.
Total number of magnet schools in the United States from 2000/01 to 2019/20.
YearNumber of magnet schools
9 more rows
30 Mar 2022

How do magnet schools work in Nashville? ›

A magnet school is a public school that offers specialized curricula and programs not available in traditional neighborhood zoned schools. Magnets are designed to attract students with a common interest or skillset, and students must apply and be accepted to enroll. Magnets are publicly funded schools.

What is the number One Middle school in Tennessee? ›

SchoolRanking (2022 vs 2021)
RankSchoolAverage Standard Score (2022)
1Thurman Francis Arts Academy/Magnet School for the Arts99.9
2Martin Luther King Junior School99.7
3Brentwood Middle School99.6
7 more rows
25 Jul 2022

What is the largest school district in TN? ›

Memphis-Shelby County Schools is Tennessee's largest public school district and is among the 25 largest public school districts in the United States. Formerly comprised of two smaller districts, Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, MSCS serves over 110,500 students in more than 214 schools.

Is kindergarten mandatory in TN? ›

All children must attend kindergarten before age 7. LEA may require students admitted to kindergarten to attain the age of 5 on or before August 31 and January 1. In the 2018–19 school year districts must offer prekindergarten to all children who are age 4 before July 1.

Why are school vouchers unconstitutional? ›

Voucher proposals pose a threat to the American system of public schools and the constitutional principle that government may not fund or promote religious education. If passed, these voucher schemes would drain the public schools of tens of millions of government tax dollars.

What is a government voucher? ›

Vouchers are grants of government funds, while tax credits are private funds. The court held that money spent and claimed as a credit, which is never collected in taxes in the first place, remains private money, not government spending like school vouchers.

Do the benefits for religious schools violate the First Amendment? ›

This would help offset the cost of tuition at private, including parochial (religiously affiliated) schools. The Supreme Court rejected First Amendment challenges to the program and stated that such aid does not violate the Establishment Clause.

What is the #1 high school in Tennessee? ›

1Hamilton County Collegiate High at Chattanooga State9-12
2Franklin High School9-12
3Ravenwood High School9-12
7 more rows
25 Jul 2022

What is the number 1 high school in Tennessee? ›

Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School

#1 Best Public High Schools in Tennessee.

What is the #1 school in Tennessee? ›

The top ranked public schools in Tennessee are Merrol Hyde Magnet School, Central Magnet School and Mcfadden School Of Excellence. Overall testing rank is based on a school's combined math and reading proficiency test score ranking.

What is the best state to live in USA 2022? ›

According to the report, the best state to live in the U.S. is Massachusetts. That isn't the only northern state to appear near the top of the rankings. New Jersey, New York, Idaho, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all made the top 10.

Why is Tennessee not ranked? ›

Under Jeremy Pruitt, the Vols were No. 16 in 2020 preseason poll. They dropped out of the rankings after a 2-2 start and have not returned.

Which US state is #1 in education? ›

1. Massachusetts. Massachusetts has the best public school system in the U.S. 48.8% of Massachusetts's eligible schools ranked in the top 25% of high school rankings, a total of 167 schools. Massachusetts has the highest math and reading test scores in the U.S. and the second-highest median ACT score of 25.1.

What qualifies as low income Tennessee? ›

What is considered low income? What is considered an affordable housing cost* for families? A full-time employee, for example, earning the minimum wage of $7.25/hour in Tennessee (last increase was in 2008) earns $15,080/year - considered very low income if they are a single person household.

What is Section 8 housing TN? ›

HUD helps apartment owners offer reduced rents to low-income tenants. To apply, contact or visit the management office of each apartment building that interests you. Public Housing and Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) - To apply for either type of help, visit your local Public Housing Agency (PHA).

Does Nashville have Section 8? ›

Families with incomes of 40% or less of Nashville's median income can qualify for Section 8 housing vouchers, which allow the federal government to pay for a portion of their rent. The Section 8 program, established in the 1970s, provides affordable housing to low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled.

What is the income limit for food stamps in TN 2022? ›

Income limit for the SNAP program

In order to qualify for the SNAP program, you must have an annual pre-tax household income of: One person in the household: $25,760. Two people in the household: $34,840. Three people in the household: $43,920.

What's the most you can make on Section 8? ›

FY 2022 Section 8 Income Limits (Effective 5/1/2022)
Number of PersonsExtremely Low Income 30% of MedianVery Low Income 50% of Median
4 more rows
5 May 2022

What is considered middle class in TN? ›

Tennessee households must make at least $21,573 to reach middle class, study finds. (The Center Square) – In Tennessee, households must earn a minimum of $21,573 per year to be considered middle class, with the upper earnings boundary set at $98,679, according to a new 24/7 Wall St. analysis.

Can you buy a house with Section 8 in Tennessee? ›

THDA Homeownership Voucher Program - THDA offers a Housing Voucher (Section 8) to Homeownership Program covering most counties in Tennessee. People who meet the guidelines may be able to use their Housing Vouchers to buy homes.

What disqualifies from public housing? ›

You MIGHT be rejected if the background check reveals… Drug-related crimes; • Violent crimes; or • Other crimes that could threaten the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the building by other residents or PHA employees. The PHA will look at arrests and convictions that occurred within the past 5 years.

Does Tennessee have housing authority? ›

Housing and Development Agency (THDA)

The Tennessee Housing and Development Agency is Tennessee's housing finance agency. THDA was created to promote more affordable housing units for low and moderate income individuals and families. THDA administers numerous federal and state housing programs.

How do I get emergency housing assistance in Tennessee? ›

You must contact the Tennessee Valley Coalition to End Homelessness @ 865-859-0749 to apply for one of these vouchers OR, for victims of domestic abuse, the YWCA Knoxville & The Tennessee Valley @ 865-523-6126. If approved, you will be able to choose your own home and make income-based rent payments.

Does Nashville have affordable housing? ›

We are Nashville's largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing. With more than 1,300 current housing units, we are working to provide even more housing options for Nashvillians. Join us in bringing hope to Nashville. After all, having a place to call home changes everything.

How do I get rental assistance in Tennessee? ›

Tennessee Housing and Development Agency (THDA) has Rental Assistance Funds.
Legal Resources
  1. TN Alliance for Legal Services - Visit at. Help4TN Call Line at 1-844-HELP4TN. Help4TN Website.
  2. Legal Aid Society of Middle TN.
  3. West Tennessee Legal Services.
  4. Memphis Area Legal Services.
  5. Legal Aid of East Tennessee.


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