Lee encouraging voucher applications despite court order

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee will continue to accept applications for a contentious school voucher program despite a state judge’s order deeming the program unconstitutional and unenforceable, Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday.

The vouchers — also known as education savings accounts — have become a defining issue for Lee after he narrowly won support from the GOP-controlled Statehouse on the proposal in 2019, his first year in elected office.

“We are still encouraging parents to apply to the program because we believe that it will continue to move forward,” Lee told reporters Tuesday.

The Republican governor even made sure to include $41 million for the program in a state budget that he was forced to drastically reduce because of recession concerns caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. He reduced the pay bumps that he had proposed for public school teachers, among other cuts.

On Monday, Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin 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 due to uneasiness about launching a voucher program in their own legislative district.

Democratic lawmakers in Nashville and Memphis had also objected to the voucher bill.

The program would allow eligible Tennessee families to use up to $7,300 in public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other preapproved expenses.

After reviewing two separate lawsuits from local officials and civil rights groups, Martin issued a decision that the voucher law was “unconstitutional, unlawful and unenforceable.”

Lee has vowed to challenge the judge’s decision with the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which would have to agree to take the case.

The state had been accepting voucher applications until this Thursday, a deadline that was extended from April 29 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But critics warned that by encouraging parents to apply to a program that has been ruled illegal by a judge, Lee may face additional legal challenges.

“The governor’s statement is concerning,” said Bob Cooper, the top attorney for Nashville’s government, which is one of the lawsuits’ plaintiffs. Cooper, a former Tennessee attorney general himself, said he is talking to the state attorney general’s office about what the state needs to do to comply with the court’s injunction.

Other plaintiffs in the voucher lawsuit also flagged concerns.

“Chancellor Martin was clear in declaring the ESA voucher law unconstitutional and she permanently enjoined the state defendants, including Governor Lee, from implementing and enforcing the law,” said Thomas H. Castelli, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

“To the extent that Governor Lee may be violating this order, we will consider all legal options,” Castelli added.

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