May 19, 2022 - Politics

Lee's school voucher program gets TN Supreme Court win

Photo illustration of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee with lines radiating from him.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher program was in line with the state constitution.

  • The 3-2 decision overturns rulings from lower courts that blocked the program.

Why it matters: Lee's program would create education savings accounts, commonly called vouchers, that would allow eligible students to use public funding to attend private school.

Flashback: A bill authorizing vouchers in Tennessee's biggest cities narrowly passed the General Assembly in 2019, but the measure was mired in court challenges and controversy.

  • The high court's ruling is a significant victory as Lee nears the end of his first term.

Between the lines: The Supreme Court reheard the case after Justice Cornelia Clark died last year.

  • Court of Appeals Judge Thomas "Skip" Frierson, II, stepped in temporarily for the case. He joined Chief Justice Roger Page and Justice Jeff Bivins in the majority.
  • Justices Sharon Lee and Holly Kirby dissented.

The intrigue: The program was originally designed for students in a handful of counties, but lawmakers winnowed it down so that it applies only to the Nashville and Shelby County districts.

  • Those local governments sued, saying the state couldn't create such a program that applied only to them.
  • While some state courts agreed, the Supreme Court found the program's narrow design did not violate the state constitution.

What he's saying: Lee said the opinion "puts parents in Memphis and Nashville one step closer to finding the best educational fit for their children."

The other side: State Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) said the Home Rule Amendment to the constitution should bar the program.

  • "While the decision itself is bad, the worst result of the Tennessee Supreme Court's school vouchers decision will be the school vouchers," Yarbro tweeted.
  • "In state after state after state, vouchers lead to worse education outcomes."

What's next: Wednesday's ruling was in response to a specific constitutional question that arose during a broader lawsuit over the vouchers, so the ongoing lawsuit will continue in state trial court.


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