Tennessee judges uphold contentious school voucher law

A Tennessee judicial panel has upheld the state’s school voucher law, which allows public tax dollars to be given to families to pay for private schooling.

Critics of vouchers argue that the law will weaken the state's public education system, but the three-judge panel said counties and families who sued couldn't prove how students would be immediately harmed by the program. They concluded that any concerns raised now are “speculative and representative of (opponents') disapproval of policy.”

Plaintiffs are “simply asking the court to wade into a policy debate, something we cannot do," the panel said Wednesday.

The ruling comes after a yearslong legal battle over the contentious voucher program, known as education savings accounts. Under the law, eligible families are given around $8,100 in public tax dollars to help pay for private school tuition and other preapproved expenses.

While the Republican-controlled Legislature approved the voucher program in 2019, the state has only been recently allowed to begin implementing the law this summer after the Tennessee Supreme Court lifted a key legal obstacle.

Opponents, which include Nashville, Shelby County and a handful of families, maintained that schools and students would be hurt by the voucher program because school districts lose money for every student that participates in the voucher program.

But the three-judge panel said in their ruling that opponents' claims “lack ripeness” because the voucher law includes a provision that replaces the diverted funds for at least three years through "a school improvement fund.” Money for the improvement fund is subject to legislative appropriation.

“The loss of money has already been remedied by the ESA Act itself," the judges wrote. “Such an injury, if it occurs, is entirely speculative because the legislature has accounted for the funding gap that is the source of harm."

The decision was lauded by supporters of the vouchers, including Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who was named in the lawsuit.

“Through our ESA Program, TN families can finally choose the best school for their child,” Lee tweeted shortly after the decision was released. “Hundreds of students have already enrolled in this life changing opportunity to receive the high-quality education they deserve.”