Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday put on hold a judge's ruling that has prevented state officials from holding a lottery to award taxpayer-funded vouchers to low-income families that want to send their children to private or religious schools.
The North Carolina Educational Assistance Authority is conferring with its attorneys, but it likely will move forward with the lottery in the face of two lawsuits challenging the program, executive director Steve Brooks said.
About 5,500 students have already applied for the so-called Opportunity Scholarships, annual grants of up to $4,200 per child, and Brooks said those applications still need to be screened to determine how many meet eligibility requirements. The agency also needs to sign up schools willing to accept the vouchers, he said.
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.
About 2,400 vouchers were to be awarded for the 2014-15 school year, but Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood issued an injunction in February to halt the lottery, agreeing with voucher opponents that state education funds must be spent on public schools.
Attorney General Roy Cooper declined to appeal Hobgood's ruling, but an outside group representing parents who applied for the vouchers requested the stay.
"We commend the court for allowing the Opportunity Scholarship Program to proceed and listening to the true voices of this debate, the parent-plaintiffs who chose to stand up for their child’s fundamental right to a ‘sound, basic education’ and refused to be defined by their income level or ZIP code," Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in a statement. "These parents applied for this program, qualified for this program and now have the opportunity for their child to attend the participating private school of their choice this fall."
Edwin Speas, an attorney representing the N.C. School Boards Association and local school boards in the case, said his client is more interested in a final determination from the court on whether the program should go forward or end altogether.
NCAE President Rodney Ellis echoed that sentiment, saying they hope to win a permanent injunction against the vouchers.
"Private schools have no accountability to taxpayers," Ellis said in a statement. "They are not required to be accredited, to hire certified teachers, to have a curriculum or to perform criminal background checks on teachers or staff. They can use discriminatory policies to choose their students. We think this is wrong. That’s why we’re fighting this.”
Legislative leaders said last month that they planned to appeal Hobgood's decision, saying the judge's ruling 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.