Raleigh, N.C. — A Superior Court judge on Friday issued an injunction blocking a North Carolina law that allows low-income parents to send their children to private or religious schools with taxpayer money.
Judge Robert Hobgood's ruling prevents the state from holding a lottery next month to award about 2,400 vouchers for the 2014-15 school year.
About 4,700 students have applied for the annual grants of up to $4,200 per child, called Opportunity Scholarships, with about half of the applications coming from Mecklenburg, Wake, Cumberland and Guilford counties, officials said.
Voucher supporters said the program would give low-income parents another educational option when public schools aren't meeting their needs. They also argued that spending $10 million on the program could save the state money because of the high per-pupil cost in public schools.
"This is about schools failing individual students as determined by the parents. No parent wants to move their child from a school for the hell of it. They do it because they’re unhappy," said Dick Komer, an attorney for Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which joined the North Carolina Attorney General's Office in defending the Opportunity Scholarship program.
The North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association filed separate lawsuits against the law passed last year by the General Assembly. Dozens of local school boards also are challenging the legality of the program.
The opponents argued that spending taxpayer money on private schools is unconstitutional, especially when some of the schools discriminate in their admissions and don't have the academic standards or accountability of public schools.
The Wake County Public School System could lose up to $3 million in state funding as students with vouchers head to private schools, but Edwin Speas, an attorney for the opponents, said the program would hurt rural counties the most.
"If five students in Hyde County accept the voucher, (the district) will lose the equivalent of funds to employ two teachers. That's a big blow in a small system," Speas said.
Komer said the vouchers would affect "a relatively tiny proportion" of overall school funding in the state.
Assistant Attorney General Lauren Clemmons said halting the program only creates uncertainty for the families who have applied for vouchers.
"You have to consider the impact on these families," Clemmons said. "We have the harm to these families if this program is halted ."
Lawyers for both sides said the suit could be tied up in the courts for more than a year.
Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, who co-sponsored the law that created the Opportunity Scholarships, said he was disappointed by the setback to the program.
"The only constitutional issue the judge ruled on can be fixed in the short session (of the General Assembly) just by appropriating another $11 million to the public schools, and I’m sure we’ll be appropriating more than that for the next fiscal year," Stam said. "So, this is a temporary roadblock."