Metro, Shelby seek voucher injunction as state plows ahead

By: - July 25, 2022 2:38 pm
(Photo: John Partipilo)

(Photo: John Partipilo)

Metro Nashville and Shelby County are asking a Davidson County court to put a hold on the state’s Education Savings Account program, claiming it places an unconstitutional private school voucher program on two school districts at the expense of the counties that fund them and the students who remain.

The counties sought an injunction Friday in Chancery Court as the state expedites the program with only two weeks until the start of the 2022-23 school year.

“The General Assembly intentionally and unapologetically excluded every other school district in Tennessee from the Act’s application to ‘protect’ those districts from the Act’s harmful impact,” the filing claims. “And it did so without any justifiable rationale and without tailoring the program to any education goal.”

Metro and Shelby contend the act goes “far beyond politics,” and the state’s “haphazard and rushed rollout” just before the start of the school year, “only exacerbates” the effect on school operations and student education.

Notably, the filing contends the voucher program will force the Metro Nashville and Shelby school districts to spend millions of dollars for students who will not be in their classrooms.

“The State Defendants plainly will stop at nothing to see this Act implemented. The fallout will be disastrous, and it will be irreparable,” the filing states, adding a temporary injunction is “the only solution.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court paved the way for the program to begin in June when it overruled two lower courts and found the education savings account program doesn’t violate the state’s Home Rule Amendment, which prohibits state action from affecting specific counties without approval by voters or the local governing body. Davidson County Chancery Court lifted an injunction on the program July 13.

The Legislature narrowly voted in 2019 to set up the voucher program in Metro Nashville and Shelby school districts, based on district performance on standardized tests, and limited any districts from being added to the program. Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties were to be voucher districts until they were removed to garner enough votes for passage.

Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, changed his vote on Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher plan after cutting a deal to ensure his district was exempt. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, changed his vote on Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher plan after cutting a deal to ensure his district was exempt. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Then-Speaker Glen Casada heldthe vote board open for nearly 45 minutes so he could work the chamber after a tie House vote in April 2019 to find a tie-breaker. Rep. Jason Zachary finally agreed to vote for the legislation with the understanding Knox County would be removed. Other lawmakers, such as Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, also voted for the legislation when Hamilton County was removed.

Two weeks after the court injunction was lifted, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration sent a letter to parents of K-12 students in Metro Nashville, Shelby and the Achievement School District letting them know that dozens of independent schools are committed to participating in the ESA program. 

“The Education Savings Account program was built to support parents in Memphis and Nashville who urgently need access to options beyond traditional public school. While roadblocks have unnecessarily delayed this assistance for families, the need is greater than ever,” the letter says.

It contends a “pressing need” existed in 2019 to enable parents to find “the best educational fit” for students. The letter also claims data shows learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic “disproportionately affected students of color.”

“School closure, virtual learning and a loss of supportive environment contributed to declines but we stand at the ready to help students repair and excel,” the letter states.

Gov. Lee told reporters last week 600 families have expressed an interest in participating in the ESA program this school year. Up to 5,000 qualifying, low-income students can take the vouchers in the first year, and it increases to 15,000 in the third year of the pilot program. 

Lee met with private school operators in Memphis last week where about 25 private schools are set to accept students and voucher funds.

One of the biggest knocks on the program is that it won’t provide enough money for students to enroll in private schools, forcing parents to take out loans to pay the rest of the costs.

The Tennessee Department of Education website notified people about loans that could be available for education that would have to be repaid with interest, similarly to credit cards. 

Spokesman Brian Blackley, however, said neither the department nor the ESA program will be lending money to parents. Blackley said the notification was an excerpt in a supplemental resource developed in 2019 to let parents know about other funding options if the ESA amount didn’t cover tuition costs at a private school.

Lee said he planned to speak last week with Memphis area schools whose tuition is higher than the roughly $7,000 to $8,000 the state will provide to cover tuition and other costs. A new K-12 education funding formula could affect the amount of money provided to each student, but the impact is unclear.

Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program will offer parents who want to send their children to private schools roughly $7,000 to $8,000 but the Tennessee Department of Education has a posting on its website notifying people about loans available for education that would have to be repaid with interest.

Too quick or on time?

Despite the quick rollout after a three-year wait, the chairs of Senate and House education committees said they aren’t concerned that problems could crop up.

“Because of the court action, they’ve had several years to still be working on this and, frankly, they’ve had ample time to put this together,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. 

Blackley said the department had not been working on the program because of the injunction placed on it three years ago. Lundberg said he was not aware of that.

Likewise, House Education Administration Chairman Mark White said a number of applications were submitted when the program was approved and could be far along in the process.

“I’ve always been a supporter of school choice for students … so I am encouraged that the court system has allowed this to move forward,” White said. 

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, addressing the House of Representatives in April 2022. Chair of the House Education Administration Committee, White said plans for Hillsdale College to operate charter schools in Tennessee are "shattered." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, addressing the House of Representatives in April 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The East Memphis Republican said he supports competition in all areas and added that the latest test scores show Shelby County continues to come among the lowest 17% in the state.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a proponent of dissolving the Achievement School District, which is made up mainly of charter schools in Memphis and a few others run directly by the state, said he isn’t surprised by the state’s decision to move quickly on the voucher program.

“They cleared some of their legal hurdles, and they’re going to take advantage of this window to try to get this thing launched,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat. “It’s pretty straightforward.”

He predicted problems with the rollout but noted the state is “pretty bent” on an immediate start-up.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, continued to criticize the governor’s administration and its efforts to increase the role of private schools and charters in public education. 

Lee has felt backlash in recent weeks after one of his education advisers, Larry Arnn, president of Michigan-based Hillsdale College, was recorded at a Franklin event saying teachers come from the “dumbest” parts of the “dumbest colleges” in the nation and that he hopes to show that anyone can teach students. Lee, who has refused to reject Arnn’s statements, told the group he hopes Hillsdale will start 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

Now that the public is starting to better understand Lee’s true opinions of our public schools and catching on to his ongoing grand scheme to dismantle our public education system with policies like vouchers, charter authorizers and (a new education funding formula), it appears he and (Commissioner Penny) Schwinn are rushing to flip every ‘on’ switch.

– Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville

Since then, Rutherford County and Clarksville-Montgomery County school boards rejected charter applications by Hillsdale-affiliated groups.

“Now that the public is starting to better understand Lee’s true opinions of our public schools and catching on to his ongoing grand scheme to dismantle our public education system with policies like vouchers, charter authorizers and (a new education funding formula), it appears he and (Commissioner Penny) Schwinn are rushing to flip every ‘on’ switch before the Legislature reconvenes and gets a chance to revisit some of their harmful policies,” Clemmons said.

Lee has made no secret of his support for charter schools and private school vouchers since taking office. Even before he was elected, he gave $11,000 to a political action committee for the pro-voucher American Federation for Children from 2012 to 2016. Betsy DeVos, education secretary under former President Trump, gave $97,000 to the PAC, and former car dealer Lee Beaman gave $95,000. 

In addition, Lee’s former chief of staff, Blake Harris, and current staffers Tony Niknejad and Brent Easley lobbied for voucher legislation before starting work for the governor.



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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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