Suit against vouchers is crucial for NC public schools

December 11, 2013 

Another day, another lawsuit over a law passed by the Republican-led General Assembly.

On Wednesday, a legal challenge was filed in Wake County Superior Court against a school voucher law passed earlier this year. It’s a vitally important challenge that seeks to protect the state’s public schools from a reduction in their funding and the unraveling of the consensus that providing free and universal public education is a fundamental state obligation.

The lawsuit brought by 25 plaintiffs is being supported by the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the poor and for social justice causes. The lawsuit contends that vouchers, which their proponents have labeled “Opportunity Scholarships,” violate the state constitution’s stipulation that public funds “are to be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

The new law provides $4,200 in public funding for low-income students to attend private schools starting next fall, but the disbursement could be blocked if plaintiffs gain an injunction suspending the law.

The law makes North Carolina one of several states that grant vouchers to low-income students whose families believe they would be better off in a private school. The efforts elsewhere have faced legal challenges with mixed results. States that have instituted the program have not shown general improvement in the academic performance of low-income students, though some schools have reported gains.

Advocates for public schools are hardly averse to trying new methods to improve performance. It’s unlikely there is a public function that has been “reformed” more often than public schools. Even today, public schools nationwide are undergoing a major shift in curriculum as they adopt the standards known as the Common Core.

But progress in public education requires an honest debate among all parties involved about what works and what is best for students. Indeed that was the process that developed the Common Core. The push for “Opportunity Scholarships” has lacked both broad involvement and candor. The program is being pushed by Republicans as part of an ideological surge against teachers associations and unions, “educrat” administrators and “government schools” in general.

The misguided push for vouchers is made even more suspect by its disingenuous tactics. Republican lawmakers, especially those in North Carolina, who have shown not a whit of concern for the poor, are declaring that vouchers are necessary to liberate poor children “trapped” in lousy schools.

What is really going on is that poor children are being used as ideological cover for a broader movement toward vouchers. Once vouchers are approved for poor and disabled children, once the constitutional barriers to spending tax dollars on private and religious school tuition are breached, then the entire edifice of public schools is in jeopardy as all students become eligible for vouchers.

Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, is a leading example of lawmakers who wave the banner of helping low-income students even as they undermine what can most help the poor – well-funded, diverse and academically sound public schools. Berger spent the last session bashing public school teachers, taking away their job protections and approving a budget that continued to freeze teacher pay that is near the lowest in the nation.

But in a statement about the lawsuit, Berger was on ramparts exhorting his commitment to helping low-income children learn.

“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,” Berger’s statement said. “Their shameful and defeatist mission will only hurt these students and our state.”

A need for consistency on education or openness about the real goals of voucher advocates is not going stop the champions of “Opportunity Scholarships.” Let’s hope that the state constitution does.

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