Durham, N.C. — North Carolina's school voucher program is the state's latest assault on minorities, civil rights advocates said Tuesday.
A Superior Court judge last week suspended the Opportunity Scholarships program until a lawsuit challenging its legality can be resolved. The NAACP has filed briefs supporting the position of the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association that the program is unconstitutional.
Under the program, about 2,400 students from low-income families would receive up to $4,200 a year in taxpayer funds to help pay for tuition at private or religious schools. More than 4,700 students had applied for vouchers for the 2014-15 school year before the program was halted.
State NAACP President Rev. William Barber called the voucher plan "old wine wrapped in a new wineskin," saying it smacked of 1970s-style efforts in North Carolina to evade court orders calling for the desegregation of public schools in the state.
"You cannot look at this issue in a vacuum, and you cannot dismiss the racialized components of what (Gov. Pat) McCrory and (House Speaker Thom) Tillis and (Senate President Pro Tem Phil) Berger and extremists are doing," Barber said during a news conference. "To take public money to engage in this kind of voucher scheme is wrong."
Private schools don't have the same accountability that public schools have, aren't required to meet similar academic standards and have far fewer certified teachers, he said. Also, the vouchers wouldn't come close to covering the tuition charged by most private schools, so few low-income families would be able to use them, he said.
Effort to shield legislative emails questioned
The NAACP plans to fight the voucher program as fiercely as it has North Carolina's new elections law, Barber said. Among the provisions of that law, passed by the General Assembly last year, are the elimination of a week of early voting, the end of same-day voter registration and a requirement, starting in 2016, that voters present photo identification at the polls.
"We will fight it – both the attacks on voting rights and the attacks on public education – and we will pull the cover off of these schemes and expose them," he said.
The NAACP and other groups have challenged the elections law, although state courts have ruled that their lawsuit won't hold up the May 6 primary.
The groups are trying to access legislators' emails regarding the law, and a federal judge asked last Friday for more information before ruling on the lawmakers' motion to quash the request.
"The government and their lawyers are now feverishly trying to hide information about why and how and who in the development of this voter suppression," Barber said. "If they feel this law is so worthwhile, why are they trying to hide their efforts?"