Judge keeps voucher lawsuits alive

lbonner@newsobserver.comFebruary 17, 2014 

— Voucher opponents won an early court battle Monday when a Superior Court judge turned back an effort by state lawyers to dismiss their lawsuits challenging the use of taxpayer money to send children to private schools.

It was one of the first in what may be many legal decisions on the state’s new voucher program. Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood on Friday will consider whether the voucher program should be frozen while the lawsuits work their way through the courts.

Parents who move their children from public to private schools are set to receive $4,200 in tax money per child to pay private school tuition beginning with the next school year. The new $10 million program, approved as part of the state budget last year, started accepting applications from parents this month. Applicants must meet income limits, which for the first year is the amount that qualifies children for free or reduced lunch.

Voucher opponents argue that vouchers are unconstitutional. The legislature set up a system that would send money to private schools that aren’t held to the same standards as public schools and may discriminate based on race or religion, they said.

“The worst private schools are fully eligible to receive vouchers,” said Burton Craige, an attorney representing more than two dozen taxpayers in the lawsuit backed by the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center.

The law supposes the legislature “can throw money down a black hole as long as the hole is marked ‘education,’ ” he said.

The N.C. School Boards Association has a similar but separate suit against vouchers that dozens of local boards are supporting. The lawsuits are being heard together.

Special Deputy Attorney General Lauren Clemmons argued that the “opportunity scholarships” as they’re called, are constitutional.

Private schools must meet certain standards, Clemmons said, and the legislature added more requirements for them in the new law.

Voucher opponents’ arguments are about policy, she said.

A Virginia-based libertarian law firm, Institute for Justice, is representing two parents who want the scholarships.

Dick Komer, senior attorney with the Institute, said vouchers give parents the chance to “act as if they’re well-off.”

“Power has been transferred to the parent,” he said. “They have choice. That is a fundamental threat to the public education system.”

Gennell Curry of Creedmoor, one of the parents Komer represents, said she had to move her sons to public school last fall when she could no longer afford to send them to Christian Faith Center Academy.

She has applied for the opportunity scholarships so they can return there.

Some teachers at the public school seemed indifferent when her older son, a high school sophomore, asked them for extra help as he played sports, she said.

Curry said her younger son, a high school freshman, needs a more challenging environment.

Arnetta E. Beverly of Greensboro, who is part of the NCAE lawsuit, said public money should go to public schools, not to private schools not accountable to the public.

“Somehow I got the idea that the other side wanted to say our public schools are not doing a good job educating our children,” she said. “There’s a problem with the private schools being unaccountable. How well do the children do in school?”

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

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