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Weekend Read: SPLC victory in Tennessee highlights national campaign to keep public money in public schools

When Lisa Mingrone taught art in a Tennessee school, her “supply budget” only provided students with the funding equivalent of a box of crayons, far short of the full range of art supplies they needed for the whole year.

Now a parent of a child in the Metro Nashville Public Schools, Mingrone has an even deeper understanding of the lack of resources – including a dearth of educators – in public schools. Those scant resources in Tennessee public schools were recently at an even greater risk of evaporating after the state Legislature narrowly passed a private school voucher program that threatened to drain more public money from two of the 95 counties in the state.

“Our schools already do not have enough textbooks and supplies,” Mingrone said. “Schools are filling these gaps by fundraising from families and local communities. If the voucher program drains more funds from Metro Nashville Public Schools, schools that don’t have the ability to fundraise because they are in low-income neighborhoods or serve mostly low-income students will fall even further behind.”

Mingrone and others scored a milestone victory this week when a judge blocked Tennessee from implementing the voucher program. The ruling came as the program is challenged by two lawsuits, including a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and its partners.

The victory stopped a voucher program that was poised to siphon off more than $7,500 per voucher student – more than $375 million in the first five years of the program – from funds dedicated for the Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County (Memphis) Schools. Three days after the initial ruling, the judge ruled that the state could not implement or spend any money on the voucher program during the appeal.

Mingrone joined other parents and community members, represented by the SPLC and its partners – the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, ELC and Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP – to challenge the voucher program as an unconstitutional diversion of public education funding in McEwen v. Lee.

In another case challenging the voucher law, Davidson and Shelby County governments filed suit in Metropolitan Government of Nashville v. Tennessee Department of Education. Although the cases have not been formally consolidated, they are assigned to the same judge and have been litigated on the same timeline in joint hearings.

Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin permanently blocked the voucher law, known as the Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program. Because the law applied only to students in Davidson and Shelby counties, Martin ruled that it violates the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws that target specific counties without local approval.  

“The judge’s decision to strike down Tennessee’s voucher law is a victory for the nearly 200,000 public school children in Davidson and Shelby counties who are already suffering from a lack of school resources,” said Lindsey Rubinstein, an attorney with the SPLC Children’s Rights Practice Group. “This ruling sends a message not only to Tennessee but also around the country that public school funding should remain in public schools. The SPLC opposes the privatization of public education, and we are deeply committed to seeking justice for all school children in the country who would be harmed by similar laws.”

The ruling is the latest win in a nationwide campaign that the SPLC and other advocacy groups have launched to keep public money in public schools. The Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign is a partnership of the SPLC, the SPLC Action Fund, the Education Law Center (ELC), and Munger, Tolles & Olson. PFPS works to ensure that public funds for education are dedicated to public schools, which serve the vast majority of students in our country.

PFPS recognizes that public schools are centerpieces of all communities, and works to guarantee that all communities have thriving public schools. The launch of this campaign comes after decades of chronic underfunding of public schools across the country as a result of increasing efforts to privatize – and profit from – the vital institution of public education.

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.

Public schools may face even more cuts because of the damage to the economy from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put an even greater strain on state and local budgets, according to The Brookings Institution. When children do return to the classroom after social distancing protocols have been lifted, students and their families are likely to find schools that are even more underfunded than before the pandemic.

Despite limited resources, public schools across the country are working to keep children nourished, safe and learning during the pandemic. 

In contrast, private schools that receive public voucher money are not required to accept all students, let alone to provide an equitable education for students of color, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities. What’s more, research shows vouchers are ineffective at providing students better educational opportunities than public schools do.

“The recent court ruling striking down Tennessee’s unconstitutional voucher program is a huge victory for public school students and for advocates dedicated to keeping public funds in public schools.” said Jessica Levin, PFPS director and a senior attorney with the ELC. “It is particularly important because of the uncertainty facing our public schools in these difficult times. We are thrilled that the PFPS partnership has given our organizations the opportunity to undertake a multifaceted approach to opposing private school vouchers while supporting public education – including litigation, communications, research and policy advocacy.”

As part of its approach to using multiple strategies to support public schools, PFPS recently launched a legislative tracker that monitors private school voucher bills across the country, providing advocates, students, parents and families with a tool to monitor and fight against efforts to privatize public education.

PFPS also published a series of reports on voucher bills across the country during the 2019 legislative sessions. The series shared inspiring stories of educators, advocates and others working together to defeat voucher bills and support public schools.

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. Before the judge blocked the controversial law, it was scheduled to go into effect this fall.

Under the program, taxpayer funds would have been deposited into education savings accounts (ESAs) which could be used to pay private school tuition and other costs associated with education at private schools. The program was limited to Memphis and Nashville and was a campaign promise of Gov. Bill Lee.

“Chancellor Martin’s ruling is an enormous victory for Tennessee public school students,” said Chris Wood, a partner at Robbins Geller who argued for the McEwen plaintiffs. “Today, the voices of public school parents and community members were heard. The state needs to adequately fund our existing public schools, which educate the vast majority of students in Tennessee, instead of trying to send our taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools.”

Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP Images