Hillsdale College Controversy Continues in Tennessee

Gov. Lee speaks at Whitehaven High School commencement, May 21, 2022

Tennessee’s private school voucher program cleared another legal challenge on Wednesday. The Davidson County Chancery Court ruled in favor of the Education Savings Account program and dismissed legal claims related to it. The ESA program, which was championed by Gov. Bill Lee and narrowly passed in 2019, allows certain students in Nashville and Memphis to use public dollars to attend private schools. 

The program was initially challenged in 2020, before it had been instituted. Since then, ESAs saw several rounds of litigation before the program was green-lit to move forward in July. Following that ruling, the state rapidly began implementing the program for the 2022-2023 school year. 

Wednesday’s decision, which followed a September hearing, considered arguments from Davidson and Shelby counties and parents against the state and other ESA supporters — multiple lawsuits were consolidated in this case. The plaintiffs argued that the program violates the equal protection and education clauses of the state constitution, and that each city would be harmed from the loss of education-related funding that would occur when students drop out of public schools and go to private schools. The defendants argued that the claims are not yet ripe, since a state “school improvement fund” would pay back the lost funding to the affected counties for three years. 

The three-judge panel — made up of Chancellor Anne Martin, Judge Tammy Harrington and Judge Valerie Smith — upheld the defendants' claims that the plaintiffs do not have proper legal standing to challenge the program. 

Judge Martin, who ruled the program was unconstitutional in 2020, dissented on some aspects of the case. Martin wrote that she “would have found that Plaintiffs’ allegations are more that sufficient to establish ripeness,” and that she “would have permitted County Plaintiffs’ equal protection claim, and both of Parent Plaintiffs’ Education Clause claims, as well as their BEP/TISA violation claim, to proceed to further analysis from the Court.”

The 26-page decision can be read here

“We are disappointed in the trial court’s decision and are actively reviewing whether to appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals,” Metro Nashville legal director Wally Dietz tells the Scene via email. 

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