Nashville Mayor John Cooper files Metro lawsuit against state of Tennessee over school voucher law

Mayor John Cooper

Mayor John Cooper and Metro Law Director Bob Cooper have announced that the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, including the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education, has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state of Tennessee’s controversial 2019 voucher law.

The 44-page suit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, names the Tennessee Department of Education, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, and Gov. Bill Lee as defendants, and outlines multiple ways in which the voucher law, known as the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program, violates the state constitution. Shelby County also joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff.

Mayor John Cooper described litigation as a “last-resort response” to state policies that strain the budget of Metro Nashville Public Schools and shift unfunded mandates to local taxpayers.

“We must do all we can to protect Metro’s resources, especially when it concerns our public-school students and educators,” Mayor Cooper said. “Ensuring a bright future for Nashville requires more, not less, investment in our public schools. It is both my job and the responsibility of this administration not only to protect Metro’s limited resources for public school funding but to seek more public education investment from the state.”

“The bottom line is, Tennessee’s voucher law was intentionally designed to impact just two counties based on politics, not policy,” said Bob Cooper, director of the Metro Department of Law. “We believe a complete vetting in chancery court will demonstrate that the law violates our state constitution and undermines our local government’s ability to deliver adequately funded public education.”

With 86,000 students, MNPS is the 42nd-largest school system in the U.S. and the second largest in Tennessee. In 2017, the Nashville school board voted to join Shelby County Schools in suing the state over inadequate funding of the Basic Education Program. The board has, over several years, expressed fiscal and policy concerns about vouchers.

“As advocates for our city’s public-school students and stewards of finite taxpayer resources, we are resolved to stand up against vouchers,” said Anna Shepherd, chair of the nine-member school board. “When the governor and state lawmakers ignore our concerns, the only remaining option is the judicial branch. We’re grateful for Mayor Cooper and the Metro Department of Law’s leadership in this litigation.”

“Vouchers have been a failed experiment wherever they are tried and seek to only undermine public schools,” said Dr. Adrienne Battle, interim director of schools. “Instead of seeking ways to disinvest from our classrooms and teachers, I would welcome a collaborative relationship with state leaders on how we can work together to invest in proven strategies that result in the best outcomes for our students.”

According to Metro’s lawsuit, the voucher law (which targets only MNPS and Shelby County Schools) runs afoul of the state constitution in at least three areas.

First, the law violates the constitution’s ‘home rule’ provision limiting the Tennessee General Assembly’s ability to narrowly draw legislation to affect local communities without local consent. Second, the law violates the constitution’s equal protection clauses by diluting public school funding in Davidson and Shelby counties without doing the same in other counties. Third, the law violates the constitution’s mandate that the legislature “provide for the maintenance, support, and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

As a remedy, the lawsuit is seeking a court order declaring the voucher law to be “unconstitutional, unlawful, and unenforceable” and injunctions preventing state officials from implementing the law. Cooper pledged to keep taxpayers updated as the litigation winds through the court system in the coming months.