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Weekend Read: Parents sue Tennessee over voucher program that would drain resources from underfunded public schools

Tracy O’Connor drives her son to another school each day – just for geometry class – because his school does not offer it.

Roxanne McEwen’s daughter loves the violin but stopped playing after her performing arts school cut the string instruments program.

The school that Inez Williams’ granddaughter attends relies on community donations for uniforms, paper, pencils and crayons.

Schools in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, need more money – not less – to properly educate students. But if the state implements a voucher program as planned, the already-underfunded public schools would lose substantial sums of money, and children would suffer even more.

O’Connor, McEwen and Williams are among 11 plaintiffs in a lawsuit the SPLC and its partners – the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the Education Law Center (ELC) and Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP – filed this week.

The lawsuit, McEwen v. Lee, argues that diverting millions of dollars from struggling public schools to private schools violates public school students’ right to adequate and equitable educational opportunities that are guaranteed under the Tennessee Constitution. The voucher program also violates the state constitution’s “Home Rule” provision, which prohibits the state Legislature from passing laws that apply only to certain counties, according to the lawsuit.       

“We love my daughter’s school, but it is already underfunded,” said McEwen, whose child is a student in the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). “There isn’t enough money for textbooks, technology, to pay teachers, or to keep class sizes down. Taking more money away from our schools is only going to make it worse. I joined this lawsuit because I want to be a voice for my child and for kids who don’t have a voice.”

‘Dangerous law’

The lawsuit is part of a nationwide campaign launched last year by the SPLC, the SPLC Action Fund, Munger, Tolles & Olson, and the ELC to ensure that public funds are dedicated to educating the millions of students in public schools, which are now severely and chronically underfunded. Nearly half of U.S. states are investing less in public education than before the 2008 recession, and wide funding gaps persist between schools in wealthy communities and those in low-income communities and communities of color.

That’s why taking public dollars from public schools poses a grave and growing threat to the opportunity for every child in the United States to attend a thriving public school.

Tennessee’s voucher law passed by a single vote in May 2019, over the objections of legislators from Shelby and Davidson counties, as well as others. The controversial law is scheduled to go into effect this Fall.

Under the program, taxpayer funds will be deposited into an education savings accounts (ESAs) which can be used to pay private school tuition. The program is limited to Memphis and Nashville and was a campaign promise of Gov. Bill Lee.

The program would siphon off more than $7,500 per student – more than $375 million in the first five years – from funds appropriated by the General Assembly to maintain and support the Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County (Memphis) Schools, according to the lawsuit.

“We are deeply concerned about the Tennessee Voucher Law and the devastating impact it will have on the almost 200,000 public school children in Davidson and Shelby counties,” said Christine Bischoff, senior staff attorney for the SPLC. “This law, when compared to other voucher laws across the country, is particularly problematic, because it targets two counties whose elected representatives strongly – and publicly – opposed it.

“The SPLC opposes the privatization of public education, and we are deeply committed to seeking justice for the plaintiffs’ children and all other public school children in Tennessee who will be harmed by this dangerous law.”

A study by the Economic Policy Institute found no evidence that voucher programs significantly improve student academic achievement.

In fact, they pose significant risks. As more students leave underfunded school districts, these districts will continue to lose money, creating a vicious cycle where financially deprived districts never have enough funding to improve schools.

No accountability

What’s more, voucher schools lack accountability for civil rights protections, meaning they can and do discriminate based on students’ and families’ disabilities, LGBTQ status, religion, income, immigration status and language proficiency.

While public schools must educate all students, private schools – including those funded by vouchers provided with public tax dollars – may refuse to serve certain students.

“Public schools are open to all children, while private schools receiving voucher funds are not held to the same standards,” said Nashville mother Terry Jo Bichell, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. “My son is non-verbal and receives extensive special education and related services in his MNPS school, including being assigned a one-on-one paraprofessional. I do not know of a single private school in the state that would be willing or able to enroll a student like my son. Even if a private school was willing to enroll my son, we would have to waive his right to receive special education.”

When she was in middle school, O’Connor – the plaintiff who drives her son to geometry class at another school – attended a private school in the basement of a pastor’s house. It had no curriculum requirements and no government body ensuring that she was actually learning.

She sat in a cubicle all day doing worksheets. She was not encouraged to think and had little interaction with other students or teachers. She felt cheated out of two years of education.

“I fear that vouchers will encourage similar fly-by-night private schools to open so they can receive tuition money,” she said. “I believe that is an unacceptable use of my taxpayer dollars.”

Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP Images