North Carolina Judge Bans Taxpayer-Funded Vouchers for Private Schools

EspañolOn Thursday, August 21, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood declared the North Carolina school-voucher program for low-income families unconstitutional, bringing it to an immediate halt.

Hobgood asserted that taxpayer money cannot be used for the tuition of religious or private schools. The coalition that filed the case — including the NC Association of Educators and the progressive NC Justice Center — have gone further and described the “opportunity scholarships” as an attack on the state’s government schools, siphoning off taxpayer money for private interests.

The fatal element of the voucher program is that participating schools do not follow the state curriculum requirements; thus, in Hobgood’s view, the delegation of authority to independent schools fails to comply with the state constitution: “Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose.”

He added that the voucher program has left it to parents to assess whether their own children are at risk, without any analysis of the quality of the education taught outside the orthodox state system.

It appears to this court that the General Assembly is seeking to push at-risk students from low-income families into non-public schools … to avoid the cost of providing them a sound, basic education in public schools as mandated by the [Leandro v. State] decision.… The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public, taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.

This decision comes after Judge Hobgood blocked the voucher program in February, although in May the NC Supreme Court permitted implementation of the program, pending the trial.

The Interests of Parents and Children or the Education Establishment?

Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First NC advocacy organization, has weighed in that the ruling restores the “promise that all children receive a sound, basic education within the public school system.… Public education creates productive citizens, a strong economy, and a great democracy.”

However, Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, hopes an appeal will permit the vouchers continue. He shall fight to make the court decision a temporary roadblock against the right of parents “to choose how their child is educated to best meet their needs.”

Americans for Prosperity‘s NC State Director Donald Bryson has also expressed disappointment: “A lawsuit by a special interest group that has financial incentives to trap children in failing schools may cost thousands of children a chance at a quality education.”

Bryson continued: “We hope that something can be done, either in the courts or in the General Assembly, to give North Carolina families increased freedom in education. The current system of dictating a ‘one size fits all’ education is not working for many families and they are crying for options.”

NC Senate President Phil Berger is an advocate for education reform, and has lashed out at Hobgood’s decision to halt a school-choice policy.

Today’s ruling by a single trial court judge advances a clear political agenda ahead of the needs of thousands of North Carolina children. We are committed to providing students a sound, basic education … that’s the very reason we don’t want to trap disabled and underprivileged children in low-performing schools… This ruling yet again frustrates parents who desperately want to provide what’s best for their kids, and I hope we will move swiftly to appeal.

Court Rules, Plans Stopped Cold

This decision came just days after the new school year and affects hundreds of families that intended to use the voucher program, which is no more.

The State Educational Assistance Authority has been overseeing US$10 million of taxpayer-funded scholarships, and before the ruling they planned to distribute $728,000 for tuition to 363 students. None of this money can be given out, says Elizabeth McDuffie, the agency’s grants director.

Initially, the voucher-release date was slated for September 19. But that changed with little explanation to Aug. 15, which could have meant funds released before the judge’s decision. However, a technical glitch prevented the payments from going through. “No money has left the building,” McDuffie says.

This voucher program was to give low-income children an opportunity to have independent education, focused on their individual needs, after public schools have failed to do so. These families were to receive as much as $4,200 annually in taxpayer funding.

To be eligible, each child had to come from below a guardian-income limit of about $44,000 for a family of four. The grants haven’t been available to students who already attend independent schools.

Families in the program identified which independent schools they wanted their children to attend, and religious schools were among the top choices. Government schools cannot promote religion, but there was no such restriction on private schools with vouchers.

Independent schools in North Carolina do not have to give state exams or comply with public-school regulations. However, they must give a national exam of the school’s choosing, and they would have had to report the results for scholarship students.

By Thursday midday, information about the opportunity scholarships had been removed from the NC State Education Assistance Authority’s website.

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