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Tennessee Appellate Court Rules Parents and Community Members Can Challenge State’s Private School Voucher Law

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In a significant win for Tennessee public school students and families, the Tennessee Court of Appeals last week reversed a lower court decision that dismissed a lawsuit challenging the state’s education savings account voucher law. The decision allows the case to move forward.

The Court of Appeals determined that the plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee have the right to pursue their constitutional claims against Tennessee’s private school voucher law, and that the trial court should hear the case now. The voucher law, passed in 2019, funnels public funds to private education, including tuition for private schools that are not subject to the same quality, accountability, and anti-discrimination standards as public schools.

“This voucher program takes precious funding from our public schools, and it must be challenged,” said Roxanne McEwen, one of the plaintiffs in the case whose children attend Metro Nashville Public Schools. “I’m very happy the court has recognized that we are entitled to have our voices heard.”

Public school parents and community members in Shelby and Davidson Counties filed McEwen v. Lee in 2020, arguing that the voucher program illegally diverts taxpayer funds, appropriated for public schools in those counties, to private education uses. They asserted that the program violates the Tennessee Constitution and state law and exacerbates the underfunding of public schools in the two targeted school districts.

The defendants in the case argued that the McEwen plaintiffs did not have “standing” to assert their claims, meaning they were not appropriate parties to bring a lawsuit against the voucher program, and that the dispute was not “ripe,” meaning it was not yet time for the court to hear the case based on their assertion that the public school districts had not yet lost funding. The lower court dismissed the case on those bases, but on January 10, a three-judge panel in the Tennessee Court of Appeals unanimously rejected those arguments.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the McEwen plaintiffs had established standing both as parents of public school students in the affected districts, alleging harm from the program’s diversion of education funding to private schools, and as taxpayers contesting an illegal use of public dollars. The court also ruled that the case was ripe, explaining that the plaintiffs “have alleged that they [are] being harmed by the implementation of the [voucher law] in the here and now, not in a hypothetical future scenario.” The state began implementing the voucher program in the 2022-23 school year.

The McEwen plaintiffs are represented by Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate on the Public Funds Public Schools campaign, as well as the ACLU of Tennessee and Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Chancery Court for further proceedings.

For more information, see McEwen v. Lee Background.