Application period for vouchers opens as court fights begin

lbonner@newsobserver.comJanuary 31, 2014 

  • To apply for a voucher

    Online applications are available at http://ncseaa.edu/OSG.htm

    Applications submitted by Feb. 25 will be entered into a lottery. Lottery results will be emailed on March 3.

    In the first year, family income cannot exceed the limit that would qualify children for free or reduced lunch. For a family of three, the income ceiling is $36,612.

Education in the state makes another big shift Saturday when the application period opens for parents seeking private school vouchers.

Applicants will begin requesting vouchers just as the intense legislative fight over tax money for private school tuition enters the courts.

The legislature set aside $10 million for “Opportunity Scholarships” during the last session. Households meeting income limits can use the money to move their children from public to private schools beginning with the next school year. Up to $4,200 is available per child.

The program faces two lawsuits from residents and organizations seeking to stop it. One is sponsored by the N.C. Association of Educators and the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center with state residents as plaintiffs. The N.C. Association of School Boards filed a similar lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of vouchers. Forty local school boards joined the suit.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs want to put the program on hold and have asked the judge hearing the cases for a preliminary injunction. Arguments over a temporary halt to the program may be held this month.

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, one of the scholarship plan’s biggest boosters, has paid for radio spots, mailers and phone calls advertising it.

Though the group has marketed the program widely, its president, Darrell Allison, said the aim is not to create demand for an expanded program that would include wealthier families.

“We want to get the word out,” he said.

Though Allison emphasizes the percentages of low-income students who failed state standardized tests last year, he says private schools are not inherently better than public schools. But more parents should be able to choose where to send their children, he said.

“It’s not just about the student,” Allison said. “For the first time in many of these parents’ history, they will be empowered for the first time to make a choice.”

Karey Harwood, executive director of Public Schools First NC, said parents will see public schools make the best choice when teacher quality, richness of curriculum, student diversity, and accountability are considered. Public Schools First fought the voucher law.

“There are a lot of slick and shiny mailers and advertisements that make the option of this voucher seem very, very appealing,” Harwood said. “Buyer beware. Make sure this is really what’s going to work for your family.”

Latesha Brown of Charlotte has been waiting for application filing to begin because she’s considering private school as an option for her third-grade son.

Brown said her son has had some challenges in school and might do better in a private school with smaller class sizes.

“They have the opportunity to get one-on-one help in a smaller classroom,” she said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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