RALEIGH — Low-income North Carolina parents can plan to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools this fall, even as the constitutionality of the new state program is debated in court.
In a one-sentence ruling Wednesday, the N.C. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay against a lower court’s preliminary injunction putting the voucher program on hold for the past three months. Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood had sided with opponents of the program who argued that it should be frozen while the lawsuits are heard.
The new ruling means, at least for now, the state can go ahead with providing schools as much as $4,200 in taxpayers’ money to help parents pay their children’s private-school tuition. The program has drawn so much interest that a lottery will be held to award the vouchers.
“They can do the lottery and decide on the scholarships while we argue the case,” said Renée Flaherty, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a Libertarian law firm representing parents seeking the vouchers.
The ruling was lauded by state Republican legislative leaders who had backed the program.
“The Supreme Court made the right decision today, and I am pleased that thousands of low-income children across North Carolina will have the opportunity to attend a school that best meets their needs in the coming school year,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said in a written statement.
Opponents of the voucher program reacted with a mixture of disappointment and defiance.
“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision,” Edwin Dunlap Jr., executive director of the N.C. School Boards Association, said in a written statement. “The prudent thing would have been to answer these important constitutional questions before the state started spending public money on private schools.”
Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the group looked forward to persuading the court to eliminate the program permanently.
“We feel that the program is not only unconstitutional but is also a reckless use of money,” he said.
Last year, the state legislature set aside $10 million for the program, enough to give about 2,400 students “opportunity scholarships.” To be eligible, parents have to currently have their children in a public school and meet federal income requirements for their children to receive subsidized lunches.
The state had received more than 5,500 applications. Families identified which private schools they wanted to attend, with religious schools being among the top choices.
The N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center filed one suit against the voucher program. Another suit was filed by the N.C. School Boards Association, which was joined by 71 of the state’s 115 school districts, including Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Chatham, Durham and Orange counties.
In February, Hobgood issued a preliminary injunction, saying the program was “likely” unconstitutional. The injunction prevented the state from accepting more applications and holding the lottery.
Two parents who want to use vouchers asked the N.C. Court of Appeals to lift the legal freeze. But the Court of Appeals decided in April not to lift Hobgood’s injunction, putting the ability of families to get vouchers for the coming school year in doubt.
In addition to letting the voucher program proceed, the Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeals to hear arguments on whether the preliminary injunction should have been issued. Those appellate arguments will take place while the merits of the original case remain to be debated in Hobgood’s courtroom.