@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

State teachers' group files lawsuit challenging voucher program

Posted December 11, 2013 10:33 a.m. EST
Updated January 22, 2014 2:37 p.m. EST

— The North Carolina Association of Educators filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on Wednesday, challenging the state’s new private school voucher program.

The advocacy group wants the court to declare unconstitutional the Opportunity Scholarships Act, which was passed by the General Assembly earlier this year, and stop the state from issuing the vouchers.

Under the program, state lawmakers set aside $10 million in the budget to help pay private school tuition for about 2,500 students, starting in the 2014-15 school year. Legislative leaders said they plan to ratchet the fund up to $50 million a year after that.

The vouchers would provide $4,200 per year to assist in private tuition, and supporters say it offers options for low-income students at under-performing schools.

The North Carolina School Boards Association filed a separate suit against the program, and dozens of school districts statewide have joined that lawsuit.

The NCAE contends in its lawsuit that the state constitution requires public money that is earmarked for education be spent “exclusively” on public schools. They also argue that the state shouldn’t be giving money to private schools when the public school system ranks among the lowest in the nation.

“The North Carolina Constitution could not be more explicit: Public monies are to be used only for free public schools, period. That is the heart of our legal challenge,” said Melinda Lawrence, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, which also sponsored the lawsuit.

Rodney Ellis, president of the NCAE and a Winston-Salem teacher, is among the 25 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. He called the voucher program “part of a broad assault on public schools and on the constitution of our state.”

“Schools without standards, without accountability, are not worthy of a $4,200 check," Ellis said. "The government-run voucher program described in this unconstitutional legislation will siphon public money from schools already struggling to make ends meet. As a father of children in the public schools, as a taxpayer, I find this offensive and wrong. I do not want my tax dollars paying for children to attend private schools."

House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger issued a statement in response to the filing, noting that 16 other states and Washington, D.C., have similar, successful programs.

"Not only are these left-wing interest groups fighting every attempt to improve public education, they now want to trap underprivileged and disabled children in low-performing schools where they will continue to fall behind their peers," they said.