NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s much-debated school voucher program is facing a second legal challenge from opponents echoing previous concerns that the program illegally diverts public tax dollars to private schools.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed the complaint Monday on the behalf of several eligible parents who live in school districts where the voucher program would apply.
The 38-page lawsuit alleges the voucher law is illegal under the Tennessee Constitution’s “home rule” because Republican lawmakers did not receive local consent when drawing legislation affecting local communities. The argument is similar to the complaint filed nearly a month ago by the state’s largest communities — Nashville and Memphis — who are seeking to block the new program from going into effect later this year.
However, along with raising funding concerns, the ACLU is also alleging the voucher law must be spiked because tax dollars will be spent on private schools that could discriminate against certain students.
“Diverting limited public education funding to private schools that do not provide students the same standards of education and civil rights protections as public schools violates Tennessee’s Constitution and state law,” the complaint states.
Plaintiffs include parents who have children with disabilities and at least one student who “identifies as LGBTQ.” Meanwhile, the defendants named in the lawsuit are Republican Gov. Bill Lee, Tennessee’s Board of Education and education agency, as well as Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.
“There certainly are those who are detractors,” Lee told reporters on Monday when asked about the second lawsuit. “But there’s a real desire for those kids to have access and that’s what we’re working to get, and we feel confident about that path.”
Currently, the voucher law requires participating private schools to agree they won’t discriminate against students on the basis of race, color or national origin. Yet there is no such requirement on the basis of sex, religion or disability.
“The participating private schools can deny enrollment or otherwise discriminate against students based on characteristics such as disability, religion, English proficiency, LGBTQ status, and ability to pay tuition or fees,” the complaint states.
The lawsuits comes less than a year after Lee signed the school voucher bill into law with narrow support from the GOP-controlled Statehouse and strong opposition from Democratic members and public education advocates.
The law would begin diverting tax dollars to private education, starting in the 2020-21 school year, by allowing participating families to get up to $7,300 in state education money each year and be spent on pre-approved private school tuition and other expenses.
The voucher program would apply only to the state’s largest school districts — Nashville metro and Shelby County, the areas with the lowest performing schools and regions with Democratic political strongholds.
Families interested in participating must provide federal income tax returns showing they do not exceed twice the federal income eligibility for free school lunch, or provide proof they can qualify for federal assistance.
Income verification quickly became one of the law’s most fought about aspects during the 2019 legislative session, with the ACLU and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition arguing the law would exclude families who are in the U.S. illegally from getting their children vouchers.
Reporter Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report from Nashville.