@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Judge refuses to dismiss challenge to NC school voucher law

Posted February 17, 2014 1:23 p.m. EST
Updated February 17, 2014 6:34 p.m. EST

— A Superior Court judge refused Monday to dismiss a challenge to a North Carolina law that allows low-income parents send their children to private or religious schools with taxpayer money.

The North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association filed separate lawsuits against the law passed last year by the General Assembly. Dozens of local school boards also are challenging the legality of the Opportunity Scholarship program.

After denying the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuits, Judge Robert Hobgood set a Friday morning hearing to determine whether to issue an injunction sought by the plaintiffs that would stop the state from issuing any vouchers until the case is resolved.

Thousands of students have already entered the lottery for the 2,400 or so vouchers that will be awarded for the 2014-15 school year. Applications are being accepted online until Feb. 25.

The plaintiffs argue that the annual grants of up to $4,200 per child fund a separate education system and violate the state constitution. School funding should be used exclusively for running "a uniform system of free public schools," according to the lawsuits.

The school boards association also contends that the law fails to require private schools to meet any meaningful educational standards and would allow the money to be used at schools that discriminate in their admissions.

Plaintiffs attorney Robert Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice, argued that private schools will be the only beneficiaries of the voucher law because they will decide which and how many voucher recipients to take, and the state constitution doesn't allow for using public money to benefit private schools.

"There is this impression that this legislation is about helping low-performing students leave low-performing or failing schools, and such is simply not the case," Orr said.

State attorneys and a libertarian legal defense group representing parents eager for the Opportunity Scholarship program argue the first scholarships should be awarded as scheduled on March 1.

"The point of the Opportunity Scholarship program is to provide a different educational opportunity for the students of families from lower incomes who want another alternative," Assistant Attorney General Lauren Clemmons said. "This provision is not restricting the state from supporting other educational programs or initiatives."

Dick Komer, an attorney for the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, said parental control over the money used to educate their children is "a fundamental threat" to the public school system. Hobgood allowed the group to join the lawsuit on the side of state attorneys working to preserve the voucher law.

Cynthia Perry of Wake Forest, one of the parents represented by the Institute for Justice, said public schools aren't meeting the needs of her 8-year-old daughter, who has attention-deficit disorder and struggles with reading comprehension.

"I believe with the private-school sector, because the class size is smaller, those needs would be met," Perry said. "I am all for this program. I believe it will work for my child."

Orr said the state already has a raft of educational choices for families – public schools, private schools and home schools – and shouldn't be in the business of boosting the finances of private schools.

Voucher supporters say that, in addition to giving parents more control over their child's education, the scholarship grants save money because private school tuition is typically less than the per-pupil cost at public schools. At an average $8,400 cost to educate a student in public schools, state budget-writers this year estimated $11.8 million in savings resulting from lower school enrollment.

Clemmons also noted that public schools aren't losing any money because lawmakers tucked the $10 million for the voucher program into the University of North Carolina system's annual appropriation.

Plaintiffs attorney Burton Craige called that argument a "budgetary shell game" that still violates the intent of the state constitution.

"Whether the voucher appropriation appears in the budget for UNC or the zoo or the public schools, the effect is the same. Public funds for education are being transferred to private schools," Craige said.