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Governor plans to retain funding for school vouchers after 'unconstitutional' ruling

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Bill Lee (copy)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said that the state plans to appeal a Nashville judge's ruling against the constitutionality of his education savings account program and retain funding in the state's bare-bones budget.

A Nashville judge ruled Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's education savings account program was unconstitutional Monday night, and Lee said he still intends to set aside funding for the program in the upcoming fiscal year's budget.

"We disagree with that court ruling, and we will appeal that, of course, and hope to move forward with the education savings account program," Lee said.

In March, the Tennessee General Assembly rushed to pass an emergency no-growth budget adjusted for the COVID-19-era economic downturn before an early recess. This budget allotted about $38 million to the ESA program, which allows some students in Davidson and Shelby counties to use public school funding towards private education.

Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin ruled that the program is in violation of Section XI, Article 9 of the state constitution, known as "home rule," because it applied specifically to the Nashville and Memphis areas without their consent.

"Anything that is going to allow children in this state to have a high-quality education is worth fighting for," Lee said. "We'll continue to pursue that and believe that now more than ever a high-quality education starting this next year is important for Tennessee students."

Tennessee legislators will convene again in June, and state Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson has recently shared during community events that he believes the budget will need to be trimmed even further than it was in March, potentially by $700 million to $1.5 billion.

Other proposed education- and youth-related programs, such as the governor's $250 million mental health trust fund and $68 million literacy initiative, were cut completely from the budget in March, and $117 million allotted for teacher pay raises, were cut roughly in half in the emergency budget.

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