Point of View

School vouchers: Why we sued North Carolina

February 11, 2014 

It’s not an easy thing to choose to sue your state. But during the 2013 session of the General Assembly, lawmakers passed a bill to provide private school vouchers to some students. These “opportunity scholarships” – so named because supporters learned early that the term “vouchers” doesn’t poll well – provide taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition.

In December, I joined 24 other North Carolinians in suing the State of North Carolina to halt the school voucher legislation. We sued because we believe vouchers violate the state constitution, because we support public education and because the school voucher bill is such bad public policy.

Thankfully, most residents see this issue our way. Poll after poll has found that most people oppose school vouchers – and with good reason.

Reason 1 :Students don’t do better under a system of vouchers. Studies of voucher programs like those in Cleveland and Milwaukee show that students with vouchers don’t perform better than public school students, nor does the voucher program benefit the student population as a whole.

Reason 2: Vouchers are costly, tearing away millions of dollars from already shortchanged public schools. The legislature has committed $10 million to vouchers next year, and that’s only the beginning. If vouchers were to become available to the population in general, the first to take advantage would be those who are already in nonpublic schools. Such a program would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars to pay the tuition for parents who already send their children to private schools. It’s unconscionable that the state would shift money to private education when we already rank 48 in spending on public schools.

Reason 3: N.C. residents don’t take kindly to the idea of having their hard-earned tax dollars foot the bill for someone else’s private education.

Reason 4: The public doesn’t like vouchers because private schools aren’t accountable to the public. Private schools are accountable to their parents, and these parents have every right to choose private education. But private schools don’t provide a public report card of their results. They don’t have to tell taxpayers who they serve, who they underserve and who they refuse to serve. So the community can’t judge whether tax dollars are being well-spent.

Only students who have the money to make up the difference between the voucher and what tuition actually costs will get to participate. Let’s look at the argument that vouchers are aimed just at low-income students. In the long run, these students will be hurt most by a system of vouchers. Let’s not kid ourselves. The chief proponents of the voucher system in North Carolina ultimately want vouchers for students of middle and upper-income families. That’s what has happened in Indiana, where half of the state’s students now qualify for vouchers. And in the Cleveland and Milwaukee programs, vouchers aren’t limited to low-income students.

Make no mistake: Disadvantaged students in failing schools deserve a good education. The General Assembly needs to put its efforts and our tax dollars to work on creating solutions that will actually help our kids. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap, but it has been done. North Carolina once enjoyed the praise of the nation for its work in accelerating achievement for all students and helping disadvantaged students to advance in the process. Real strategies that produce this kind of progress are worthy of the state’s investment. A thinly veiled voucher plan that requires taxpayers to underwrite private school tuition is not the solution.

Students, their families, taxpayers and our public schools deserve better than this misguided education policy. Instead of raiding school funding to enact and expand a voucher scheme, our legislature should provide adequate resources for students in public schools.

So we chose to sue. We wish that it weren’t necessary, but disastrous public policy requires a strong response. The state constitution provides that taxpayer funds for education “shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.” As we read it, that clear language prohibits the state from using public funds to pay for private school vouchers. We believe that the North Carolina courts will reach the same conclusion.

Mike Ward served as superintendent of Public Instruction in North Carolina from 1997 to 2004.

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