Tennessee judges uphold controversial school voucher law

A Tennessee court panel has upheld the state’s School Voucher Act, which allows public taxpayers’ money to be paid to families to fund private schools.

Coupon critics argue the law will weaken the state’s public education system, but the three-judge panel said counties and families suing could not prove how students are directly harmed by the program. They concluded that all concerns now expressed are “speculative and representative of (opponents’) disapproval of the policy”.

The plaintiffs “are merely asking the court to interfere in a political debate, which we cannot do,” the panel said Wednesday.

The verdict comes after years of litigation over the controversial voucher program known as the Education Savings Account. Under the law, eligible families will receive approximately $8,100 in public taxpayer money to help fund private school fees and other pre-approved expenses.

The Alabama legislature talked about a school voucher program earlier this year but didn’t pass legislation.

Related: Legislature names a nonpartisan group as the state of Alabama school choice

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

Opponents, including Nashville, Shelby County and a handful of families, claimed schools and students were being harmed by the coupon program because school districts are losing money for every student participating in the coupon program.

However, the three-member panel said in its ruling that the opponents’ claims were “immature” because the Voucher Act included a provision replacing the diverted funds with “a school improvement fund” for at least three years. Funds for the Improvement Fund are subject to statutory allocation.

“The loss of money has already been remedied by the ESA law itself,” the judges wrote. “Such damage, if it occurs, is purely speculative because the legislator has taken into account the funding gap, which is the source of the damage.”

The decision was praised by coupon advocates, 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 announced. “Hundreds of students have already enrolled in this life-changing opportunity to receive the quality education they deserve.”