Raleigh, N.C. — The state Attorney General's Office and several parents on Friday asked that taxpayer-funded vouchers to low-income families who want to send their children to private or religious schools be paid until the legality of the program is settled.
Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled Thursday that the Opportunity Scholarship program is an unconstitutional shift of state money away from public schools, and he ordered an immediate stop to disbursing any money for the vouchers.
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 about to be distributed to schools when Hobgood halted the transactions.
"The Superior Court’s action has thrown the educational future of these students into turmoil," reads a motion to the state Court of Appeals to lift Hobgood's injunction and allow the vouchers to be paid while the case is appealed.
The North Carolina State Educational Assistance Authority, which is overseeing the voucher program, said more than 1,800 students chosen by lottery have already accepted Opportunity Scholarships. Some of the private schools with voucher recipients have already started class.
"Absent an immediate stay by this Court, the parents, their children, and the private schools that have contracted to educate those children are left in limbo, uncertain as to whether the schools will be paid for providing services to the parents’ children," the motion reads.
Twenty students enrolled at Raleigh Christian Academy through the voucher program.
"They have looked at this as just an amazing opportunity. To see their excitement on the first day of school, that was just a great encouragement to us," said Principal Dwight Ausley who interviewed each family over the summer.
The vouchers would have covered about two-thirds of the tuition at Raleigh Christian, and the school planned to subsidize the rest of the cost.
Hobgood's decision to stop the voucher payments could cost the school more than $70,000, but Ausley said he wasn't surprised by the ruling.
"From the very beginning, we've tried to be cautious in our approach because it's not a done deal until the money's in the bank, so to speak," he said.
Although Raleigh Christian is reassuring all of its voucher families that their students will not be kicked out, Ausley said parents feel like they've had the rug pulled out from under them, noting they have invested hundreds of dollars of their own money in fees for applications, supplies and insurance.
"Here they are – they paid that. So, we just felt like there's nothing more that we could do than just say, 'Look, we're not going to worry. You don't worry. We're here for you. Come to school tomorrow,'" he said.
The North Carolina School Boards Association, one of the groups that challenged the legality of the Opportunity Scholarship program, said in a statement Friday that the uncertainty facing private schools and families over the vouchers was "foreseeable and avoidable."
Hobgood initially put the program on hold in February, but when parents appealed his injunction then, the state Supreme Court allowed the lottery to award the vouchers to go forward.
The Attorney General's Office and the parents argued in their motion that Hobgood's reasoning that state money can fund only public schools is wrong, stating that the voucher program "serves to supplement the general and uniform system of public schools by providing low-income families additional educational opportunities for their children, similar to the charter schools that this Court found to supplement the traditional public schools."
Hobgood ruled 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. He also accused state lawmakers of trying to get around the constitutional guarantee of providing a sound education to low-income students by shifting them to private schools that aren't bound by that requirement.