Judge rules NC school voucher program unconstitutional

Posted August 21, 2014
Updated August 22, 2014

— A Superior Court judge on Thursday overturned a state law that awards taxpayer-funded vouchers to low-income families who want to send their children to private or religious schools.

Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the Opportunity Scholarship program is and unconstitutional shift of state money away from public schools, upholding legal challenges filed by the North Carolina Association of Educators, the North Carolina School Boards Association and dozens of local school boards.

About 5,500 students applied for the annual grants of up to $4,200 per child, and the first $730,000 in tuition money for more than 360 students was supposed to be released Thursday – erroneous bank routing numbers delayed a planned disbursement last week.

Hobgood issued a permanent injunction prohibiting any state funds from being disbursed for vouchers, and officials were able to halt the electronic transfer of the money to various schools.

Elizabeth McDuffie, director of grants, training and outreach for the North Carolina Educational Assistance Authority, which is overseeing the voucher program, said more than 1,800 students chosen by lottery have already accepted Opportunity Scholarships, but not all have enrolled in private schools.

Some of the private schools with voucher recipients have already started class, and McDuffie and others said Thursday that they are still trying to sort out what happens next now that the funding for their tuition has been suspended.

"(The schools) can go ahead and admit these children and wait and see whether there’s any constitutional funds available, or the children can go back to the public schools, which will provide them an education with standards," said attorney Bob Orr, who represents the groups challenging the program.

The state Attorney General's Office plans to appeal Hobgood's ruling.

"Our attorneys believe that this is a constitutional issue that must be decided by the appellate courts," Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, wrote in an email.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which has pushed for the voucher program, said the vouchers should continue until higher courts settle the matter.

"We're literally going to yank that child out of that seat and send them back to a school district which the parents obviously didn't feel good about," Allison said.

Joy Faust's two children were to start first and second grade at Word of God Christian Academy on Monday.

Now she doesn't know what to do.

"How's it unconstitutional for me to make a decision to say 'hey, I want my children to have options,'" she said.

State lawmakers created the voucher program last year, setting aside $10 million for the Opportunity Scholarships to start in the 2014-15 school year. They added more money to the program in this year's budget to accommodate as many of the applicants as possible.

Voucher supporters have argued that the Opportunity Scholarships program would give low-income parents another educational option when public schools aren't meeting their needs. They also maintained that the state could save money by shifting some students to private schools because of the high per-pupil cost in public schools.

Hobgood ruled, however, that the private schools can discriminate in their admissions and don't have the same curriculum and teacher certification standards as North Carolina's public schools.

"Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose," he said.

Under the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit, the General Assembly is required to ensure students receive a sound education, and Hobgood said lawmakers can't delegate that authority to "unregulated private schools" and to parents "who have self-assessed their children to be at risk."

"It appears to this court that the General Assembly is seeking to push at-risk students from low-income families into non-public schools in order to avoid the cost of providing them a sound, basic education in public schools as mandated by the Leandro decision," he said. "The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public, taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything."

Allison called Hobgood's ruling "a temporary roadblock" and expressed confidence that higher courts will reinstate the Opportunity Scholarships. Meanwhile, some families have already spent money on testing, applications and uniforms, he said.

"We need to act quickly because real lives hang in the balance as a result of this decision, and we're going to vigorously fight," he said.

A national group, the American Federation for Children, blamed the ruling on "petty, adult politics."

"Parents and children are counting on this program to provide them the educational lifeline they are so desperately seeking," Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based group, said in a statement.

Rodney Ellis, president of the NCAE, said keeping state money in public schools will ultimately help all North Carolina students.

"Clearly, the idea of using taxpayer money to fund unaccountable private schools is unacceptable," Ellis said in a statement. "It’s a step in the right direction toward finding adequate funding for a high-quality public education for all students in North Carolina."


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  • JustOneGodLessThanU Aug 25, 2014

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    I see that that your name is "TooMuchGovt", so do you even care about what is American or what is Un-American? Because, giving public tax dollars to private schools is clearly against our State's Constitution... Article IX, Section 6 www.ncleg.net/Legislation/constitution/article9.html

    So, why would you slam our President for siding with American Law?

  • Carol Smith Aug 22, 2014
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    This is just another attempt to reduce public education in North Carolina. Under McCrory, we are heading towards a Mississippi sinkhole.

  • Objective Scientist Aug 22, 2014

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    And the education they need to succeed can only be obtained at a private school? There are TONS of kids who went to public schools who have done quite well... including me! I went to a NC high school with about 100 students in grades 9-12 and my graduating class was 15... yes... no typo - FIFTEEN! The curriculum was the absolute minimum required for college admission... not one credit/course more was available in this truly tiny school in a very small rural community. I applied to two schools... Duke and Carolina (yea, there is a story behind that!) and was offered admission to both. I went to one and earned a BA, returned for an MA, and returned yet again for a Ph.D. I'm all for schools with the best brick and mortar, the best technology and equipment... and the BEST teachers. All of that can contribute to a student's education... but far more important factors - IMO - are the individual student and his/her parents!

  • swfsm Aug 22, 2014

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    Having $10 million statewide and a limited voucher program or not isn't going to break or make the public education system, but it could make a difference for individual kids. So, the goal seems to be to protect the public education system at all costs rather than give kids the education they need to succeed.

  • Objective Scientist Aug 22, 2014

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    My perspective is this: $8,000 - 4,200 = $3,800... sounds like a real deal! Instead of $8,000 of my tax dollars being spent on "school", it will only be $4,200! Yay! I am $3,800 to the good. But... will MY taxes - that I am required to pay the state of NC - be reduced by $3,800? NO! And, since I don't get the $3,800... how will the state spend that "extra" money, if indeed it is really "extra" money? If the $4,200 going to a private school voucher and those schools are not bound by law and state policies, and are not accountable in the same fashion as NC public schools... and the education those students receive is "inferior" and deficient... will that $3,800 saved actually cost the state more in the long run... over the life of the private school students. Yes... some private schools are superb! Will the voucher qualifying parents be sending their kids to those superb schools... likely NOT!

  • Doug Pawlak Aug 22, 2014
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    It's not quite that simple. Losing two students in a classroom of 30 to vouchers won't mean one less teacher or that the air conditioning bill will be significantly less. You're right about society realizing the importance of education. That's why we need to fund a public school system and not defund it for some students to use taxpayer dollars for vouchers. In a state that's at the bottom of the entire nation in funding, 10 million dollars could come in handy.

  • Objective Scientist Aug 22, 2014

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    Both of you make good points... but I will say the following: I came from parents who were likely low middle class, both blue collar workers. They were determined that I would "go to college" and they - and I - were both continually told that we could expect significant financial aid when I attended UNC-CH (decades ago). Problem was - their combined income put us "just out of reach" to qualify for financial aid, and I received none! Nevertheless, I worked 80 hour weeks during the summers as well as part-time jobs during the school years and graduated with only a small amount of debt. With regard to this voucher program... due to my current income I already pay a LOT of taxes that fund programs for the "poor". Some may have similar circumstances to me, would want to sent their child to private school... but make just a little too much to qualify for the voucher that someone else gets!

  • swfsm Aug 22, 2014

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    Not sure why people seem to be having a really hard time understanding the funding piece. Those of us who pay taxes are already being mandated to provide each student a free education. The only options on the table are 1) to have $8000 per year of your money go to paying for them to go to public school or 2) to have a lower amount of your money up to $4200 go to send them to private school. The voucher replaces the public school cost. It's not in addition to it. Using the hospital analogy if you are mandated to pay for someone's ER visit would you rather pay $8000 to cover their entire bill at UNC or pay $4200 of their bill at Duke hospital and they pay the remaining amount of their bill from Duke? There's no option for a kid's education to cost you nothing (unless they are home schooled or parents can fully fund private). This is because society once upon a time decided that a more educated society was better than a less educated one

  • Ken-Anita Martin Aug 22, 2014
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    Objective Scientist: You are right. You are paying for the education of other children. But would you rather pay $8,000 for the county to do it, as you are when they are in public schools, or pay $4,200 in a private voucher. Taxpayers are getting a break with the private vouchers.

  • Grand Union Aug 22, 2014

    Part of what I pay being used to pay someone's bill who cannot or simply will not pay their bill. Anyone else see anything wrong with this picture?
    Read more at http://www.wral.com/judge-rules-nc-school-voucher-program-unconstitutional/13911842/#xW2MXwhmZf64wFlJ.99

    No. The poor will always be with us, good samaritan etc. personal charity has never ever come remotely close enough to cover such costs so the taxpayer pays, the rich earn more so they pay more. (I'm in the top 10% so I pay way more than most).
    Feel free to try being poor if you think its any better.....I'm pretty sure its not.