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Tennessee’s School Voucher Law Gets What it Deserves

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a school voucher law, permitting some of the state’s students to attend private school at public expense, in May 2019, four months after becoming the state’s chief executive. A Tennessee court recently declared the program unconstitutional. FutureEd Director Thomas Toch provides some perspective, in an annotation of recent Education Week coverage.

A Tennessee judge ruled last week that the state’s much-debated school voucher program is illegal and cannot be implemented despite education officials receiving thousands of applications from parents hoping to use public tax dollars on private school tuition.

Tennessee’s ambitious work to strengthen its public education system over the past decade, carried out by both Republican and Democratic administrations, produced impressive results and propelled the state into the forefront of school reform. Republican Governor Bill Lee, who had spent much of his career running a family construction business, shattered the bipartisan commitment to statewide public-school improvement by introducing voucher legislation when he became Tennessee’s chief executive in January 2019. The move was an insult to the state’s public-school reformers and the state’s public educators. It was also counterproductive. A responsible leader wouldn’t demean an education system that’s educating more than a million students and is on the rise for the sake of sending a few thousand students to private schools at public expense.

That didn’t stop GOP Gov. Bill Lee from urging parents to continue submitting applications—the very next day—only to reverse course a day later by hitting pause.

Trumpian churlishness.

In the interim, Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office quietly submitted a request asking the judge to lift the injunction while the lawsuit moves through the court system.

Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin, who handed down the original order, scheduled a hearing for late last week to review the request.

Martin turned down the request.

A day after that original order, Lee said, “We are still encouraging parents to apply to the program because we believe that it will continue to move forward.”

And, in what might be construed as another kick in the teeth to traditional public schools, he included $41 million for the voucher program in a state budget he was forced to drastically reduce because of recession concerns caused by the COVID-19 outbreak—in part by decreasing pay bumps he had proposed for public school teachers.

Tennessee has revamped its public-school teaching profession since 2010, implementing more meaningful evaluations, rewarding strong performance, strengthening teacher development, and giving many teachers leadership roles in their schools and beyond. To decrease an already modest pay hikes in the wake of these reforms in order to funnel money into private school tuitions is shortsighted and more than a little cynical.

In her judicial order, Martin said that the voucher law violated the state constitution’s “home rule,” which bars the legislature from passing measures singling out individual counties without local support.

The voucher program would only apply to Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis, the areas with the lowest-performing schools and regions with Democratic political strongholds.

The original version of the measure included several other regions; it was whittled down after Republican lawmakers objected because of uneasiness about launching vouchers in their own legislative districts.

There’s ample irony in Lee’s fellow Republicans refusing to implement his voucher plan in their (mostly white, mostly suburban and rural) districts, but using their control of the state legislature to put the program in the state’s Democrat-controlled urban centers that serve large numbers of students of color.

Democratic lawmakers in Nashville and Memphis had also objected to the voucher bill. The program would allow eligible families to use up to $7,300 in public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other preapproved expenses.

With the voucher program on legal hold, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has provided another way for states to channel money to private schools: through the Covid-aid package approved by Congress. On Monday, Tennessee officials told school superintendents the state would be following DeVos's guidance and sharing federal dollars with the state's more than 200 private schools.

[Read More: Vouchers Versus Reform in Tennessee]

This story ran in Education Week on May 11, 2020, under the headlines Tennessee Voucher Law Ruled Unconstitutional; Gov. Shifts Strategies.