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Judge blocks Tennessee from implementing voucher program

May 7, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this April 9, 2019 file photo, people protest against school vouchers in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee education officials remained largely in the dark on how parents misspent school voucher funds while using state-issued debit cards over the past school year, a review by The Associated Press has found. The Tennessee voucher program is currently modest in scale but is set to expand under Republican leadership over the next year. Under the program, the state gives families of children with certain disabilities the option of removing their student from public school and then provided a state-issued debit card loaded with tax dollars to help cover their children's needs in the private sector. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
FILE - In this April 9, 2019 file photo, people protest against school vouchers in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee education officials remained largely in the dark on how parents misspent school voucher funds while using state-issued debit cards over the past school year, a review by The Associated Press has found. The Tennessee voucher program is currently modest in scale but is set to expand under Republican leadership over the next year. Under the program, the state gives families of children with certain disabilities the option of removing their student from public school and then provided a state-issued debit card loaded with tax dollars to help cover their children's needs in the private sector. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee judge on Thursday blocked the state from implementing a contentious school voucher program just days after ruling the program unconstitutional.

The attorney general’s office and school choice advocates had sought permission to continue processing applications while the legal battle over the state’s voucher program — also known as education savings accounts — moves its way through the courts.

However, Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin denied the request and instead ordered the state Department of Education to post on its website that the voucher program was currently enjoined.

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The state has since asked the Tennessee Court of Appeals to review the case.

“Whatever happens on appeal will happen, but the current status is that the program is not going forward and parents need to be told and to have a plan B,” Martin said in her ruling from the bench.

Gov. Bill Lee had raised eyebrows when he responded to a question from The Associated Press on Tuesday that the state would continue to encourage parents to apply for the vouchers just a day after Martin deemed the program illegal and could not be enforced. Lee answered the question during a COVID-19 media briefing.

Yet on Thursday, Martin said the legal battle surrounding the voucher case has been moving quickly and she believed Lee “was not prepared for the questions, particularly at a COVID-19 press conference.”

Defendants had warned that delaying implementation would result in the education savings account program not being ready for the 2020-21 school year.

According to the law, the voucher program would only apply to Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis, the areas with the lowest performing schools and regions with Democratic political strongholds.

The original version of the measure included several other regions, but it was eventually whittled down after Republican lawmakers objected due to uneasiness about launching a voucher program in their own legislative district.

Democratic lawmakers in Nashville and Memphis had also objected to the voucher bill.

Two separate lawsuits have been filed challenging various components of the program. Plaintiffs include Nashville and Shelby County officials, as well as opposing parents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Education Law Center.

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Defendants who have intervened in the lawsuits include voucher advocates, such as the Liberty Justice Center, the Institute for Justice and the Beacon Center of Tennessee — who also are representing parents in favor of the ESA program.

Martin had ruled on Monday that the voucher law violated the Tennessee constitution’s “home rule,” which says the Legislature can’t pass measures singling out individual counties without local support.

The program would allow eligible Tennessee families to use up to $7,300 in public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other preapproved expenses.