State Supreme Court overturns lower courts, approves governor’s education savings account program

By: - May 18, 2022 5:14 pm
The Tennessee Supreme Court Building in Nashville, Tennessee, is the historic building that houses the Tennessee Supreme Court offices and where the court meets when it is in session in Nashville. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. (Getty Images)

The Tennessee Supreme Court Building in Nashville, Tennessee, is the historic building that houses the Tennessee Supreme Court offices and where the court meets when it is in session in Nashville. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. (Getty Images)

The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings and paved the way for Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program to provide state funds for students to enroll in private schools.

In a ruling released Wednesday, the high court found Lee’s voucher program, which will provide funds to low-income students in Davidson and Shelby County school districts to pay for private school, did not violate Tennessee’s Home Rule Amendment. 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.

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he will sign the COVID-19 omnibus bill passed in a recent special legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“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 court found.

Chief Justice Roger Page wrote the majority opinion, and Justices Sharon Lee and Holly Kirby wrote dissenting opinions on the portion dealing with the Home Rule Amendment.

Reacting to the decision, Lee said Wednesday, “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. Gov. Randy McNally, who voted for the education savings account bill, said he was “grateful the Supreme Court recognized the pilot program doesn’t violate the Home Rule Amendment to the Constitution.

“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,” McNally said in a statement.

Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle reacted by criticizing vouchers, saying they “undermine” public schools and failed to work in other states.

“We strongly disagree with the court’s opinion which undermines the principles of local control and will harm Davidson County taxpayers who will ultimately be on the hook to pay for the state’s voucher scheme,” Battle said in a statement. 

Battle argued that Metro Nashville Public Schools district is “significantly” underfunded by the state’s old funding formula, as well as the new one the Legislature passed in April.

Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS website)
Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS website)

“If the private school voucher law goes into effect, this underfunding will only be worsened to the detriment of the children of Nashville,” Battle said.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the Senate Democratic Caucus said, “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 Legislature passed the voucher program in 2019 when then-House Speaker Glen Casada held the House vote board open for nearly 45 minutes and worked the chamber to break a 49-49 tie.

Ultimately, Republican state Rep. Jason Zachary agreed to change his vote, enabling the bill to pass, if Knox County were removed as a voucher district.

The FBI has been investigating the House since then to determine if illegal favors were granted in exchange for votes. 

State Rep. Kent Calfee, a Kingston Republican who voted against the voucher bill, told the Tennessee Lookout this year he was standing on the House balcony when he heard Casada discuss offering state Rep. John Mark Windle the rank of general in the National Guard for his vote.

He said he heard Casada say, “I can’t promote you, but the governor can. I’ll call the governor.” 

Calfee also said he discussed the matter in a meeting with Lee at the governor’s office where Lee said, “You know, you’re kind of talking bad about me.” Calfee said he responded, “I told the truth.” They discussed other things, then Calfee said the governor gave him a hug.

Lee has denied any knowledge of a meeting with Calfee.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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