Raleigh, N.C. — Legislative leaders said Friday that they plan to appeal a judge's decision that prevents low-income parents from receiving taxpayer money to help with the cost of sending their children to private or religious schools.
About 4,700 students had 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.
But Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood issued an injunction in February, stopping the state from holding a lottery to award about 2,400 vouchers for the 2014-15 school year.
Attorney General Roy Cooper declined to appeal Hobgood's ruling, so House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger say they plan to do so.
“As if it isn’t bad enough that a single trial court’s ruling could trap underprivileged children in schools that don't fit their needs for another school year, it could also potentially wipe out programs to help students all across North Carolina,” Berger and Tillis said in a joint statement. “We are taking action to make sure these unintended and far-reaching consequences don’t become reality.”
Hobgood agreed with voucher opponents that state education funds must be spent on public schools, but the legislative leaders said that rationale could threaten funding to nonprofits that serve students across North Carolina, from Smart Start pre-kindergarten programs to university scholarship funds to programs for disabled and deaf children.
They noted that the state budget set aside $407 million in 2013-14 for such programs, with the bulk going to pre-kindergarten programs.
The North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association filed separate suits against the voucher law, which was passed last year by the General Assembly. Dozens of local school boards also challenged the legality of the program.
The groups 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.
Voucher supporters said, however, 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 spending $10 million on the program could save the state money because of the high per-pupil cost in public schools.