KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that he planned to file an appeal after a judge ruled that the Education Savings Account Program was unconstitutional.

Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin ruled that the voucher pilot program violated the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws that target specific counties without local approval, according to a release from the ACLU.

The law would’ve applied only to Davidson and Shelby counties, with nearly $40 million set aside for the program in the 2020-21 fiscal year budget.

The voucher law was being challenged in two separate cases: Public school parents and community members in Nashville and Memphis, who sued in McEwen v. Lee, and Davidson and Shelby County governments, in Metropolitan Government of Nashville v. Tennessee Department of Education.

“We strongly disagree with the court’s ruling and will swiftly appeal on behalf of Tennessee students who deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach to education,” Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said the ruling was just the first win in a long battle.

She said the millions of dollars set aside for the program could’ve been used to help better public education.

“Provide those wrap-around services. More guidance counselors, more social workers, mental healthcare. We do that, we will fix those schools. But you’re not going to fix it by picking up a few kids and dropping them off at another neighborhood. That is not going to fix the problem that we have with our public schools. They’re great. We need changes, but those changes are going to take a serious investment,” Johnson said.

One of the bill sponsors, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said he was disappointed in the ruling.

He said the voucher program would essentially let students choose which school to attend based on what fits their learning style the best.

“Can you imagine if we did higher ed as in, well if you live here, the you have to go to UT Knoxville, if you live here you have to go to Roane State, and if you live here, then we did it by zip codes? People would be outraged and they would point out the shortcomings of that system. And that is the exact system we have K-12., and that is why that we get the dismal results that we do,” Dunn said.

He said that the ruling calling the pilot program unconstitutional wasn’t accurate, simply because the law planned to slowly start with the two counties before expanding the law to the rest of the state.

“Every year we pass bills that start out as pilot projects, where we start them out in a few counties or in some places and then if it works then we expand it,” Dunn said.

Dunn also said another example would be the fact that some schools don’t offer the same programs as others, such as vocational agriculture.

Johnson said that the ESA pilot program did violate the Home Rule provision because the county leaders didn’t want the voucher law to pass in their counties.

“Ninety-three counties writing themselves out of a bill, but voting on it for it to happen somewhere else. That home rule is very important. When the legislators, the elected officials, the families in those counties that this is being forced upon don’t want it, we’ve got a constitutional problem,” Johnson said.

According to the ACLU, the other two arguments in the suits claim the voucher program violate the Education and Equal Protection provisions and the Appropriation of Public Moneys provision in state law.

Shaka Mitchell, the Tennessee Director for the American Federation for Children, an organization that supports voucher programs, said the ruling comes at the worst time for parents who actually need the vouchers so their children can attend a private or charter school.

The application deadline for the ESA pilot program is May 7.

“Hundreds if not thousands of parents who were getting all the application materials together within these last 72 hours and then the judges decision came down, so it’s pretty confusing probably for a lot of parents who are already in the process,” Mitchell said.

He also believes school choice is needed to better some low-or-middle income families.

For those parents in the midst of applying, Mitchell said they should continue to apply, especially since the governor plans to file an appeal.

Gov. Lee also affirmed in a press conference on Tuesday, May 5 that he was still encouraging parents to apply to the program.

If the voucher program loses the appeal, and the fight ends there, then it’s unclear what would happen to the nearly $40 million already set aside for the program in the state’s budget.

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