Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 4-3 Thursday that the state's voucher program that gives taxpayer support for low-income students to attend private schools is constitutional.
"Our review is limited to a determination of whether plaintiffs have demonstrated that the program legislation plainly and clearly violates our constitution," Chief Justice Mark Martin wrote for the majority. "Plaintiffs have made no such showing in this case. Accordingly, the trial court erred in declaring the Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional."
The court's ruling reverses Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood's 2014 ruling that the program ran afoul of requirements that the state provide a sound basic education to all students. Hobgood found that the voucher program is problematic because private schools can discriminate in their admissions and don't have the same curriculum and teacher certification standards as public schools.
Proponents of vouchers say they give struggling students and students in failing schools a chance to move to a private school that meets their needs.
"We join the thousands of families across the state who are celebrating today because the court has given them the legal right to exercise educational choice through the Opportunity Scholarship program," said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. "We are thrilled for the many low-income students currently on the program and the many more who need this option in the future."
Opponents say that the program takes money from public schools and allows public funds to go to schools that may teach based on a religious curriculum.
In her dissent, Associate Justice Robin Hudson said that the Opportunity Scholarship program does not meet the requirement that taxpayer funds be used for only public purposes. She referenced the long-running "Leandro" case, in which the court has hectored North Carolina lawmakers to do more to ensure schools are properly funded.
"However, a large gap opens between Leandro-required standards and no standards at all, which is what we have here," Hudson wrote. "When taxpayer money is used, the total absence of standards cannot be constitutional."
Although all seven justices were chosen in nonpartisan elections, Thursday's decision betrays a rare partisan split between Martin and the three other justices who are backed by Republicans and Hudson and two fellow Democrats.
The current voucher program offers up to $4,200 for families who qualify. To be eligible for the coming school year, household income must not exceed 133 percent of the threshold to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
A lottery was held last year, when about 5,500 families applied for the 2,400 available vouchers.
Lawmakers set aside $10 million for the 2014-15 school year. Senate leaders have proposed increasing the amount of funding available for the program.
"This decision will continue the damage being done to our public schools and students by allowing private vouchers to drain money from our already underfunded schools," Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said in a statement. "We believe the Constitution is clear: public funds for education should be used exclusively for public schools."
"Today is a very sad day in the history of our state,” Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First NC, said in a statement. "We cannot fathom how this decision upholds the constitutional promise that all children receive a sound, basic education within the public school system."
But legislative backers of the voucher program celebrated Thursday.
"Two-hundred and twenty-four schools worked with parents to allow students to attend the school of their choice while awaiting today’s court decision. More families will now have realistic access to educational options for their children," Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said in a statement.
"The Supreme Court reaffirmed that education in North Carolina is about our children and their future,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. “This ruling makes clear that parents – not education bureaucrats or politicians – ought to be able to choose the educational pathway best suited to their children’s needs, and it empowers thousands of low-income families across the state to make that important choice.”