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Gov. Lee says school voucher program will begin immediately
Bill Lee
Bill Lee

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Wednesday that his administration will immediately begin rolling out his long-blocked school voucher program after a judge lifted an injunction that had prevented it from being implemented.

"Starting today, we will work to help eligible parents enroll this school year, as we ensure Tennessee families have the opportunity to choose the school that they believe is best for their child," Lee, a Republican, said in a statement.

Lee added that the Tennessee Department of Education will "make ESA resources available online" in the coming days.

Wednesday's decision comes as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed one of the most comprehensive school voucher systems in the country just last week. Under that program, every parent in Arizona would be able to take public money and use it for their children's private school tuition or other education costs.

Meanwhile, a West Virginia voucher program that would have incentivized families to pull their children out of K-12 public schools was recently struck down. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has since said he plans to appeal the decision in support of one of the most far-reaching school choice programs in the country.

In Tennessee, the program is considered more modest. Known as education savings accounts, eligible families would be allowed to use up to approximately $7,000 in public tax dollars on private school 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.

Just hours prior to Lee's announcement the voucher program would be implemented this year, the state's attorneys told a panel of judges that "decisions haven't been made."

Stephanie Bergmeyer of the attorney general's office said that some of the deadlines would be based on the participating schools and when they would require a student to apply and for their seat to be accepted.

"The state has not had any communication with potential participating schools to see if those deadlines could be amended for the 2022-2023 school year," Bergmeyer said.

Anne Martin, a judge from Nashville, said she was "surprised" at the state's remarks not ruling out a program launch this upcoming school year, saying she doesn't understand "how that could possibly be." She noted multiple times that the new school year starts in about a month.

Christopher Wood, representing parents opposed to education savings accounts in one of the lawsuits, said he would have to consider asking for the the program to be quickly blocked again if the state were to press ahead for the next school year.

"It doesn't seem possible. School starts in less than a month," Wood said. "If the state really is intending to do that, I think we would obviously have to seriously consider whether we are going to file for another injunction."

Another lingering variable remains — how the school voucher program would mesh with an overhaul to the K-12 school funding formula that Lee'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.

Allison Bussell, an attorney representing Nashville and Shelby County, argued that the voucher law doesn't allow the program to take effect for the 2022-2023 school year, saying the law was updated to refer to a new education funding formula that doesn't kick in until 2023-2024.

In 2019, the contentious voucher law squeaked through the GOP-controlled General Assembly, with Republicans repeatedly tweaking the legislation to ensure it applied only to Democratic-controlled Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis, after acknowledging it was unpopular among their constituents. The two counties were among the entities that quickly sued over the program, challenging the legality of the statute.

Earlier this year, Tennessee's highest court sided with Lee's administration when it declared that 2019 voucher law did not violate the state's constitution. The case was kicked back to the lower court, where a three judge panel on Wednesday formally lifted the injunction that had been in place since 2020. The judges are still considering claims that the program violates educational and equal protection provisions.