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Nashville to file lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s new voucher law

Tennessee’s new voucher law is expected to get its first legal challenge this week from Nashville and its school district.

Attorneys for Metropolitan Nashville government were putting the finishing touches on a complaint Wednesday that’s expected to name Gov. Bill Lee and his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, concerning the controversial 2019 law.

A special called meeting of the school board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is set for Thursday morning, where Mayor John Cooper and his law director, Bob Cooper, are scheduled to deliver an “important announcement,” according to a notice shared Wednesday with news organizations.

Multiple sources told Chalkbeat that a lawsuit will be filed on Thursday in Davidson County Chancery Court.

Almost every state lawmaker from both Nashville and Memphis opposed Lee’s education savings account law, which applies only to students and school districts in their communities. The new program — scheduled to launch next school year — would allow eligible families to accept taxpayer money to move their children to private schools or private education services.

The complaint is expected to argue that Tennessee’s Constitution prohibits the legislature from arbitrarily singling out individual counties unless approved by two-thirds of the members of those counties’ legislative bodies — or a majority of voters. It’s also expected to charge that the new voucher program would impose a heavy financial burden on the state’s two largest districts, which serve a high percentage of low-income students and students of color.

It’s uncertain whether Shelby County government or its largest school system, Shelby County Schools, will join the litigation. Officials from those entities did not answer when asked that question on Wednesday. But a statement issued by the district said its leaders welcome any legal challenges to the voucher law.

Both districts already are suing Tennessee in a separate case: a 5-year-old lawsuit challenging whether the state is providing schools with adequate funding to meet constitutional obligations. That case is expected to go to trial sometime this year.

The Republican governor, who promised on the campaign trail to give parents more education choices for their children, said education savings accounts are necessary to help students living in districts with a lot of struggling schools. 

His initial proposal would have applied to six school systems that have high concentrations of low-performing schools. But as the bill worked its way through committees and reached the floors of the legislature amid fierce debate, its scope was narrowed to the state’s four urban areas — and then eventually to two: Nashville and Memphis.

Even before the legislature passed the voucher law last spring, opponents talked about potential ways to upend it in court. Possibilities ranged from its application to only two counties to one provision that appears to seek to exclude undocumented immigrant students from participating. Opponents also cried foul over the way the legislation barely squeaked through the House using a questionable parliamentary maneuver and arm-twisting by former House Speaker Glen Casada, a voucher supporter.

Beyond this week’s anticipated lawsuit, at least one more legal challenge is likely to be mounted by an outside group.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville, also has filed a bill that seeks to rescind the law, but that measure faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled legislature.