Parents Ask State Court to End Voucher Program

Parents in Nashville and Memphis are asking a state court to end the state’s new voucher program in its infancy. The program began this year after a court lifted an injunction preventing it from going into effect.

A small number of students qualified this year, as the program was greenlighted just weeks before the start of school. The lifting of the injunction did not, however, stop the ongoing lawsuit from parents.

Here’s more from Public Funds for Public Schools:

Today, a panel of judges for the Davidson County Chancery Court heard arguments in two consolidated cases challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee’s private school voucher law, which the state began implementing in August. 

The plaintiffs – Davidson and Shelby County parents and community members – argued that Tennessee’s voucher program illegally diverts taxpayer funds appropriated for public schools in those counties to private schools. They asserted that the program violates the Tennessee Constitution and state law, exacerbates underfunding of public schools, and treats Davidson and Shelby County students and taxpayers differently from their counterparts across the state. 

“My daughter’s public school is wonderful. But it already struggles with funding for textbooks, technology, and enough teachers to keep class sizes down,” said plaintiff Roxanne McEwen, whose child is a student in Metro Nashville Public Schools. “It’s wrong to take money away from our public schools – which serve every child who walks through their doors – when they are already underfunded.” 

Private schools participating in the taxpayer-funded voucher program are not obligated to comply with the academic, accountability, and governance standards that apply to public schools. Unlike public schools, private schools can discriminate against students on the basis of religion, LGBTQ status, and other characteristics, as well as refuse to provide services such as special education for students with disabilities. 
“The state and the other defendants want the court to throw out this case before the plaintiffs have even had a chance to fully air their claims,” said Chris Wood, partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd. “Our clients have asserted multiple violations of the constitution and state law that the court has not yet heard or decided.” 

Public school parents and community members in Shelby and Davidson Counties filed McEwen v. Lee in 2020. They are represented by the ACLU of Tennessee, Education Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP. The McEwen case has been consolidated with Metro Government v. Tennessee Department of Education, another case challenging the voucher law.  

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Privatizers Spend Big to Shift Legislative Landscape

I wrote recently about Team Kid PAC, the political action arm of Tennesseans for Student Success.

The dark money, pro-privatization group spent heavily to influence key races in the August primary. As Adam Friedman in the Tennessean notes, Team Kid was joined by other privatization groups in spending that ultimately resulted in the defeat of Republican incumbent House member Terri Lynn Weaver and Senate member Bob Ramsey. Both have opposed using public money to fund private schools.

Education groups that support charter schools and vouchers raised $1.2 million to spend in Tennessee’s most recent legislative primary, helping defeat two Republican incumbents.

Some of education groups support charters and others vouchers. Some back both. They operate using the political actions committees of Team Kid PAC, Tennessee Federation for Children PAC and Tennesseans for Putting Students First.

Tennesseans For Student Success, the American Federation for Children Action Fund, 50Can and The Campaign for Great Public Schools are all national education groups with donors that are nearly impossible to track. 

The Internal Revenue Service classifies these organizations as 501c4s. This means their donors are only available through nonprofit tax forms, but those forms don’t clearly show where the money comes from.

These groups are spending big to elect even more pro-privatization candidates and that spending is overwhelming the efforts of public education advocates.

Here’s more on the kinds of attacks used by Tennesseans for Student Success when lawmakers fall out of line with their privatization agenda:

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MORE EDUCATION NEWS

Policymakers are Missing the Point

School Boards vs. Hillsdale

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$26 Million Harm

Voucher case proceeds despite imminent harm to Memphis, Nashville

A three-judge panel on Friday declined to stop Gov. Bill Lee’s rushed implementation of a school voucher scheme in Memphis and Nashville.

Chalkbeat reports that lawyers for parents opposing the voucher plan had asked the court to halt implementation while their case against vouchers proceeds.

Specifically, lawyers noted that if implementation proceeds, Memphis and Nashville combined could lose up to $26 million in funding this year despite no attendant reduction in costs to operate.

“Nothing requires the state defendants to push this forward at a rocket’s pace after the injunction was lifted, just before the school year started,” said Allison Bussell, Metro Nashville’s associate law director, representing the two local governments.

She argued that allowing the program to start will cause irreparable harm to both districts, which she said stand to lose $26 million this school year if 3,000 students shift from public to private schools — while the districts must maintain and staff the same number of schools. 

A recent article in The Hechinger Report noted that vouchers have not been shown to improve student achievement, and in fact, have in some cases been shown to actually be harmful.

Vouchers are dangerous to American education. They promise an all-too-simple solution to tough problems like unequal access to high-quality schools, segregation and even school safety. In small doses, years ago, vouchers seemed like they might work, but as more states have created more and larger voucher programs, experts like me have learned enough to say that these programs on balance can severely hinder academic growth — especially for vulnerable kids.

So, vouchers not only cost local districts significant money, but they also harm the very students they are intended to help. Nevertheless, Gov. Lee and his allies are persisting with this perilous plan.

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Disproportionate Harm

The plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits against the State of Tennessee and Gov. Bill Lee regarding Lee’s school voucher scheme are again asking the courts to grant an injunction and prevent implementation of the plan.

A previous injunction was lifted and Lee announced his Department of Education would move quickly to usher vouchers in to Memphis and Nashville this school year.

Here’s more from Public Funds for Public Schools via a press release:

Following Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s announcement that the state immediately will begin implementing its controversial private school voucher program for the school year starting in just a few weeks, public school parents and community members in the targeted counties are going back to court to stop this sudden and unprecedented rollout.

The plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee, a pending 2020 lawsuit filed by Shelby and Davidson County residents that challenges the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law, filed an urgent motion Friday asking the Davidson County Chancery Court to block the state from rolling out vouchers for the 2022-2023 school year.

“This unconstitutional program will drain resources from our public schools, and our lawsuit challenging it has not yet been decided,” said plaintiff Roxanne McEwen, whose child is a student in Metro Nashville Public Schools. “Rushing to implement the voucher program before the court has spoken will only create needless chaos for our public schools and for Tennessee families.”

Friday’s motion explains the immediate and irreparable harm that would result from the state’s extremely rushed plan to hand out vouchers for the coming school year. Disbursing those funds, which are drawn from public school district budgets, would throw public schools into chaos weeks before the school year begins. And handing out vouchers that could be declared unconstitutional shortly thereafter would leave families that used them to enroll in private schools mired in uncertainty.

“The state cannot be permitted to recklessly barrel ahead with an unconstitutional program at the expense of Nashville and Memphis public schools that desperately need more, not less, funding and resources,” said Chris Wood, partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP. “We are again asking the court to enjoin the voucher program while the judges rule on the numerous constitutional and statutory violations asserted by the plaintiffs.”

This is the second time the McEwen plaintiffs have called on the chancery court to halt implementation of the voucher program before the state diverts taxpayer funds to unaccountable private schools. In 2020, the chancery court ruled in a companion case challenging the voucher law, Metro Government v. Tennessee Department of Education, that it violated the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution by targeting only Shelby and Davidson Counties without their local approval and prohibited the state from starting the program.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, but the state Supreme Court reversed it earlier this year in a split decision, sending the case back to the chancery court. The chancery court lifted its 2020 injunction of the voucher law on July 13 as a result of the Supreme Court decision. The state initially told the court that it had not decided on a course of action, but Governor Lee released a statement just hours later declaring that implementation would proceed immediately.

The plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee are represented by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, the ACLU of Tennessee, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Education Law Center. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center collaborate on the national Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign.

“There are numerous unresolved legal claims in both the McEwen and Metro Government lawsuits,” said Jessica Levin, senior attorney at Education Law Center and director of PFPS. “The temporary injunction motion filed by the McEwen plaintiffs on Friday focuses on their claim that the voucher law violates the Education Clause of the Tennessee Constitution – which requires the state to provide education solely through a system of public schools – by funding private schools outside that system.”

Private schools participating in the voucher program are not obligated to comply with the academic, accountability, and governance standards that apply to public schools. And unlike public schools, they can discriminate against students on the basis of religion, LGBTQ+ status, and other characteristics, as well as refuse to provide services such as special education for students with disabilities.

“Defunding public schools through voucher schemes like this one also disproportionately harms Black and brown children and children experiencing poverty, who have been overrepresented in public schools since private segregation academies were first funded by segregationist lawmakers across the South,” explained Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Children with the greatest needs, who are welcomed and served by our public schools, are left with fewer resources when the state acts to deplete the funds intended to educate all children. So not only is this law unconstitutional, it funds discrimination, and it is racially and economically unjust.”

“Taking money away from already underfunded public school districts and sending taxpayer dollars to private schools, many of which are religious, hurts Tennessee students,” said Lindsay Kee, interim director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “We will continue to stand with public school parents and students to fight this unconstitutional program until it is struck down for good.”

More information about McEwen v. Lee is available here.

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Flat-Out Wrong

That’s how Bruce VanWyngarden describes Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme. Yes, the very same scheme Lee is rushing to get up and running THIS school year.

Here’s VanWyngarden in the Memphis Flyer:

Which is why every human being in Tennessee should be absolutely outraged at Governor Bill Lee, who is relentlessly fostering the destruction of our public schools via a voucher system in which parents play the middleman between our state treasury and private schools to the tune of $7,000 per family. It’s flat-out wrong, and it’s using money that rightfully should be going to public schools. If people want to send their children to private schools, let them have at it, just don’t ask the taxpayers to cover the note.

He then goes on to detail the current Hillsdale controversy and note that Lee is selling our public schools to private entities with a very clear agenda.

Reports suggest voucher opponents are making one more attempt in court to stop the “rushed” implementation of the voucher program this year.

Whether or not they succeed, VanWyngarden is right: Vouchers are wrong for Tennessee.

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An Assault on Public Schools

The Network for Public Education – a nationwide coalition of groups fighting to defend public schools – issued a statement today in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling allowing public funds to be used for private, religious schools.

Here is that statement in full:

The ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Carson v. Makin forces taxpayers to fund religious education in states with school choice programs, a radical departure from American values and traditions. With this decision, the Court eradicated the separation between church and state when it comes to public funding for education, opening the door to future decisions that would further mandate the public funding of religious education. Prior to the ruling, states could fund religious education but were not obliged to do so. As Justice Breyer noted in his dissent, “What happens once “may” becomes “must”? Does that transformation mean that a school district that pays for public schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools?”

The implications of the Court’s wrong-headed decision are enormous and will certainly be seized upon by radical school privatization advocates. Privatizers have focused on capturing state legislatures and securing judicial appointments to ensure their small minority can bend public policy against high-quality and popular public schools, and today’s ruling further undermines the ability of Americans to protect public education funding.

Students, families, and taxpayers have regularly been saved from problematic, unaccountable, and fraudulent voucher programs through lawsuits citing state constitutional provisions that prohibit direct government aid to educational institutions affiliated with religious organizations. The U.S. Supreme Court has demolished those protections and this will lead to additional voucher programs that will siphon taxpayer dollars from public schools.

Although this case focused on a voucher program, the ruling also opens the door to allow religious institutions to overtly run charter schools, which also have their own long history of fraud, low-quality staff, poor academic performance, and general mismanagement. Given that charters are run by private boards, similar to the boards that run private schools, this precedent paves the way for later decisions for religious charters.

Perhaps most disturbing, some religious schools have a long history of engaging in reprehensible discrimination in both admissions and hiring and in many cases failing to provide adequate and science-based academic instruction. This decision will embolden the creation of more schools, that receive taxpayer funding, to engage in discriminatory practices in the name of religion.

Commenting on the decision, NPE President, Diane Ravitch, stated, “Maine and Vermont should only include the option of public schools in their town tuitioning programs, thus limiting public funding to public schools. Other states that subsidize any private schools should stop doing so. The path on which SCOTUS has embarked will end in publicly funded schools for every religion, of which there are scores. It threatens the principle of the common school, supported by the public and open to all children.”

Carson v. Makin highlights the depth of the current assault on our public schools by a highly motivated and organized radical minority. Even with today’s devastating ruling, their assault will continue to push for even more until all public schools are closed, and every student is left behind.

We will continue our advocacy efforts on behalf of democratically governed public schools opened to all. Public funds are for public schools.


This case has clear implications for Tennessee and Gov. Bill Lee’s plans to privatize public schools:

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Voucher Vultures Getting FBI Scrutiny

NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing to investigate the possibility of bribes involved in the 2019 vote to secure passage of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme.

Here’s more:

NewsChannel 5’s cameras were there last month as Casada woke up last month to an FBI raid on his Franklin condo.

Now, Casada has told associates that the FBI had questions about how he helped pass Lee’s legislation to create school vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Two independent sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said Casada described being questioned about allegations of bribes being offered for votes

The voucher bill itself has so far been ruled unconstitutional in Tennessee courts. Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court will take up the issue.

Casada and number of his associates faced FBI raids last month connected to an investigation of campaign finance irregularities. Now, it seems that investigation may also include questions about bribes related to the voucher vote.

Lee’s voucher scheme passed the House by a single vote after Casada and his legislative aides and lieutenants negotiated with lawmakers while holding the vote open for more than 30 minutes.

MORE on vouchers:

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Like Grasshoppers

A public school advocacy group in Ohio has taken notice of the rampant spread of school vouchers across the country and the role Tennessee is playing in the privatization game.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ voucher appeal. In 2019 a trial judge declared the Tennessee Voucher law unconstitutional. Subsequently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision. Now the pro-voucher crowd has been successful in getting the Supreme Court to hear the case.


Vouchers are spreading across the nation like the Kansas Grasshopper Plague of 1874. (The insects ate all the crops, even wool off the back of sheep). Vouchers eat up the funds of public school districts.

It’s really no surprise that a guy who sent out a Christmas card lauding the success of his voucher appeal would be this persistent in pursuit of privatization.

And of course, Gov. Bill Lee has been a long-time supporter of vouchers and a long-time skeptic of public schools.

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

Lee has consistently and publicly supported voucher schemes. That’s why I’m puzzled when I hear some local elected officials express support for both Bill Lee and public schools – it would seem the two are mutually exclusive.

Bill Lee renewed his commitment to fast-tracking the privatization of public schools in a speech in Jackson where he laid out his policy goals for 2020. Lee doubled-down on support of a voucher scheme that is dividing the state Republican Party. 

Lee has also been an advocate of silencing school boards, embracing a proposal by former state Rep. Jeremy Durham that would allow County Commissions to override board decisions when it comes to advocacy.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

That’s why I remain shocked that some board members and other elected officials express surprise at Lee’s refusal to invest in public schools even when the state is swimming in cash.

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Dear public school supporters: Bill Lee is not your friend. He has never been your friend. He will not be your friend in some magical future world.

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Voucher Vulture Kelsey Named Chair of Education Committee

Lt. Governor Randy McNally has named long-time school voucher advocate Brian Kelsey chair of the Senate Education Committee. Kelsey sponsored Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (ultimately ruled unconstitutional) in 2019. He’s currently involved in litigation attempting to validate the scheme. He even mentioned it in his Christmas card this year.

The move could signal that legislative leaders will join Lee and again push for voucher legislation in 2021.

It should be noted that one of Kelsey’s first tasks as Education Committee chair will be to weigh-in on the appointment of Laurie Cardoza-Moore to the state Textbook Commission.

More on Kelsey>

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Policy of Truth

State Senate candidate Ronnie Glynn is holding incumbent Bill Powers accountable for his votes on public education in the 22nd district race. Specifically, Glynn notes in a recent tweet that Powers voted to cut funding to public schools while voting in favor of tax cuts for corporations that donated to his campaign.

It’s worth noting that Powers has a record of selling out public schools in favor of privatization. He also has an aversion to telling the truth. While campaigning for the Senate seat in 2019, Powers assured voters he would oppose private school voucher schemes. Then, less than three hours after being sworn-in, Powers voted in favor of Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account voucher plan.

During the campaign, Powers promised he’d be against vouchers if elected. The race, decided by around 1000 votes, was relatively close. It’s possible if he’d said he supported vouchers, he would have lost the race.

While new to the body, he’s apparently not new to the art of creative deception. The very first bill Powers voted on was Governor Bill Lee’s voucher proposal. How did Powers vote? He voted YES.

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