By KIMBERLEE KRUESI and JONATHAN MATTISE – Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Wednesday that his administration would immediately begin rolling out its long-stalled school voucher program after a judge lifted an injunction that prevented it from being implemented.
“Starting today, we will work to help eligible parents enroll this school year, as we ensure families in Tennessee have the opportunity to choose the school they think 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 Governor Doug Ducey signed one of the most comprehensive school voucher systems in the country last week. Under this 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.
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Meanwhile, a West Virginia voucher program that would have incentivized families to pull their children out of public schools in K-12 was recently canceled. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has since said he plans to appeal the ruling in favor of one of the nation’s most ambitious school choice programs.
In Tennessee, the program is considered more modest. Known as college savings accounts, eligible families would be allowed to use up to about $7,000 in public tax dollars for private tuition and other pre-approved expenses. The goal was to enroll up to 5,000 students in its first year, potentially reaching up to 15,000 students in its fifth year.
Just hours before Lee’s announcement that the voucher program would be implemented this year, state prosecutors told a panel of judges that “no decision has been made.”
Stephanie Bergmeyer of the attorney general’s office said some of the deadlines would be based on participating schools and when they would require a student to apply and have their seat accepted.
“The state has had no communication with potential participating schools to see if these timelines could be changed for the 2022-23 school year,” Bergmeyer said.
Anne Martin, a Nashville judge, said she was ‘surprised’ at the state’s remarks not ruling out starting a program this coming school year, saying she didn’t understand ‘how it could be’ . She repeatedly noted that the new school year starts in about a month.
Christopher Wood, representing parents opposed to college savings accounts in one of the lawsuits, said he should consider asking that the program be quickly blocked again if the state were to move forward with the next school year.
“It doesn’t seem possible. School starts in less than a month,” Wood said. “If the state really intends to do that, I think we should obviously seriously consider seeking another injunction.”
Another lingering variable remains — how the school voucher program would fit into an overhaul of the K-12 school funding formula that Lee’s team successfully pushed through this year. The new funding formula won’t take effect until the 2023-24 school year, but Lee has allocated $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 does not allow the program to take effect for the 2022-23 school year, saying the law has been updated to make reference to a new education funding formula that does not come into effect until 2023-2024.
In 2019, the controversial voucher law creaked through the GOP-controlled General Assembly, with Republicans repeatedly tweaking the legislation to ensure it only applied to Nashville and Shelby County. under Democratic control, which includes Memphis, after acknowledging it was unpopular among their constituents. Both counties were among the entities that quickly sued the program, challenging the legality of the law.
Earlier this year, Tennessee’s highest court sided with Lee’s administration when it ruled the 2019 bond law did not violate the state constitution. The case was sent back to the lower court, where a three-judge panel on Wednesday formally lifted the injunction that had been in place since 2020. Judges are still considering claims that the program violates education provisions and of equal protection.
In Tennessee there is a program that is quite small and much more targeted. Parents of students with certain disabilities can withdraw their children from public school and then receive up to $6,000 to pay for private education services.
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