NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee won't be able to implement a contentious school voucher program while the state continues to fight back constitutional challenges over the law that would allow parents to use public tax dollars on private school tuition, according to a ruling issued Tuesday.
The latest decision from the Tennessee Court of Appeals comes nearly two weeks after a lower court deemed the program unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Instead, the appeals court scheduled oral arguments for the case to be held Aug. 5.
“As evidenced by the request for appellate review we intend to continue litigating this matter,” said Samantha Fischer, spokeswoman for Tennessee attorney general's office, in an email.
The late summer hearing date deals another blow to the state's hope to proceed with the voucher program for the 2020-21 school year. Voucher supporters had pushed for the appeals court's permission to allow the state to continue implementing the program while the case proceeded. An appeal to the state Supreme Court remains an option to try to get the program back in motion while the court case continues.
Known as education savings accounts, the voucher measure signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee last year would allow Tennessee families to use up to $7,300 in public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other pre-approved expenses.
However, the program has been clouded by controversies and two lawsuits questioning the legality of the program heavily opposed by the leaders where it's supposed to be implemented.
Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin had ruled that the voucher law violated the Tennessee constitution’s “home rule,” which says the Legislature can’t pass measures singling out individual counties without local support.
According to the law, 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, but it was eventually whittled down after Republican lawmakers objected because of uneasiness about launching a voucher program in their own legislative district.
It's unclear what Tuesday's ruling means for the $41 million that was set aside for the upcoming fiscal year to cover the costs of the voucher program.
The Republican-dominant Statehouse is scheduled to resume on June 1 after adjourning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton hinted at possible budget cuts because of revenue shortfalls caused by the coronavirus, but held off from saying the voucher program would be on the chopping block.
The GOP leader had opposed the voucher program when it narrowly passed the Legislature in 2019, but he did not actively try to delay the program's implementation when lawmakers were convening earlier this year.
“We are still assessing and evaluating our monthly and yearly revenue numbers. However, it appears significant reductions must be made,” Sexton said Tuesday.
Plaintiffs involved in the legal dispute include Nashville and Shelby County officials, as well as opposing parents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Education Law Center.
Defendants who have intervened in the lawsuits include voucher advocates, such as the Liberty Justice Center, the Institute for Justice and the Beacon Center of Tennessee — who also are representing parents in favor of the voucher program.