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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talks with students during a visit to Cameron Middle School Monday, April 1, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Updated at 5:52 p.m. on Monday, April 29, 2019, with a statement from Lee's spokeswoman.

NASHVILLE — Charging that Republican Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher proposal is "arbitrary" and thus violates the Tennessee Constitution, school leaders in Nashville and Memphis are threatening to sue the state if the bill becomes law as expected.

"If the Governor and Legislature are determined to pass a general law that would apply arbitrarily only to us or a limited number of school systems, we will be sure to exhaust all of our legal options," said Dr. Joris M. Ray, Shelby County Schools superintendent in a joint news release with Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Dr. Adrienne Battle, MNPS' interim director, stated that "no matter what you call them, vouchers are a bad idea. They are not what we need for public schools. We owe it to this generation of students -- and to all of those who follow them – to fight for a system that is fairly funded." 

The House and Senate have passed different versions of Lee's proposed "Education Savings Account" bill which would award cash grants of $7,300 a year to parents of an estimated 15,000 students, meeting certain income thresholds, where there are low-performing schools. 

Parents would use the money to pay for private school tuition and related expenses. The Senate version also includes parents who home school their children.

The Senate bill excludes Hamilton and Knox counties. But the House vote still includes Hamilton although it excludes Knox. The Republican-led House and Senate are working to iron out differences on the respective versions and the legislation widely expected to pass this week in some form as lawmakers seek to end their annual session. 

But Metro Nashville and Shelby officials say the legislation violates Article XI, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution "because it is arbitrarily limited to only a portion of the state when the Constitution requires any Act of the General Assembly to apply statewide unless approved by a local legislative body or through a local referendum."

Restricting it to Shelby and Metro Nashville schools "reflects an arbitrary application," the leaders said, pointing to excluded districts such as Madison and Fayette counties' school systems with larger or nearly the same percentages of schools performing in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide. 

They also cite the political gymnastics that legislators went through to limit the bill's impact, noting it only applies to certain districts with priority schools from the state's 2015 priority school list "even though there is a more current list from 2018 that includes schools in Campbell, Fayette, Madison and Maury counties. These districts are arbitrarily left out of the legislation."

Priority schools fall within the state's lowest 5 percent of schools in terms of student performance.

In a statement, Lee spokeswoman Laine Arnold said that "baseless legal threats distract from the real mission of the education savings account proposal which is giving our children every tool to succeed." 

According to earlier estimates from the Tennessee County Services Association, when 15,000 students are in the ESA program — and if Hamilton County remains in the law -- the system would lose $8.2 million annually in state Basic Education Program funding formula dollars and another $7.4 million as the money presumably follows an estimated 2,822 students.

Lee said he is providing $25 million in annual funding over a three-year period for all systems impacted by the bill and, following that, $25 million for priority schools for impacted systems.

Davidson County, meanwhile, stands to lose $14 million dollars in state Basic Education Program formula funding and an additional $18.54 million in local tax dollars as the money presumably follows 3,950 students.

The estimated losses for Shelby County is $30 million in state funds and $13 million in local tax funding presumably following 5,512 students.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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