NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee says he doesn't have a timeline yet on when his administration might roll out a long-blocked school voucher program that saw its biggest legal roadblock removed by the state's high court last week.
The Republican told reporters that it was a “good first step” for the Supreme Court to rule Wednesday that the voucher initiative doesn't violate the Tennessee Constitution’s “home rule,” which says the Legislature can’t pass measures singling out individual counties without local support. The decision upends earlier court rulings that have kept the program that passed in 2019 from ever being implemented.
The program applies only to Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis, the areas with the lowest performing schools and regions with Democratic political strongholds who opposed the measure. The two counties were among the entities that sued over the program.
But the governor also said there are “legal decisions yet to be made” and “a lot of steps that have to come to fruition” before the program can get up and running.
"Once we determine the speed with which the court will make its final decisions, then we can move forward with the particulars to make sure this works and fits, and how it is that we roll it out,” Lee said.
However, the state isn't blocked in court from moving ahead with the program anymore because the injunction was based on the home rule decision, said Samantha Fisher, spokesperson for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. But the attorney general has likewise acknowledged that further court proceedings need to take place, calling the Supreme Court ruling “a major step forward.”
Under the Supreme Court's order, the case now heads back to a lower court to determine other lingering legal challenges — among them, claims that the program violates educational and equal protection provisions under the state Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union state chapter, which is helping to lead one of lawsuits, says the plaintiffs in that case “intend to continue to vigorously pursue” their claims. Nashville Mayor John Cooper's office has also promised to keep fighting the voucher program from being implemented.
Lee acknowledged the state needs to determine how the voucher program would mesh with an overhaul to the K-12 school funding formula that the governor's team managed to get passed this year. The new funding formula won’t kick in until the 2023-2024 school year, but Lee did allocate $29 million in the upcoming budget to pay for the voucher program.
Asked if the state is pursuing a launch for the program this fall, Lee said, “There are a lot of steps that have to come to fruition before that could happen, but we certainly are hopeful that that can happen.”
Known as education savings accounts, the program would allow eligible Tennessee families to use up to approximately $7,000 in public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other pre-approved expenses. The goal was to enroll up to 5,000 students the first year, potentially reaching as many as 15,000 students in its fifth year.
Lee's wait-and-see approach on when to forge ahead comes after he drew scrutiny for how his administration handled a 2020 court order that deemed the program illegal and said it could not be enforced. The day after that ruling, Lee said in response to a reporter that the state would continue to encourage parents to apply for the program. Lee quickly reversed course, paused the applications and asked the judge if the state could resume accepting and processing them. The judge ruled the state couldn't do that.
The law squeaked through the GOP-controlled General Assembly in 2019, with Republicans repeatedly tweaking the legislation to ensure it applied only to Democratic-controlled areas after acknowledging it was unpopular among their constituents.