NC voucher schools raise constitutional conflicts

June 26, 2014 

The state’s new Opportunity Scholarship Program began this week and immediately showed why it shouldn’t begin at all.

More than 5,500 applicants named 440 private schools they hope to attend with the help of taxpayer dollars. Most of the applicants named a religious school as their first. Christian schools were the most common choice, but two of the top three named were Muslim schools.

Taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for children to attend private schools, especially religious schools. The $10 million program will award vouchers worth up to $4,200 per child.

The state Constitution is clear that tax dollars for education are to go exclusively to public schools. Having the state send tuition checks to schools that are not only private, but religious, adds a federal constitutional issue about the separation of church and state.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood saw these conflicts clearly when N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C School Boards Association filed separate lawsuits to block the voucher program. He said the vouchers appeared unconstitutional and issued an injunction freezing the program until the courts determine whether it was constitutional. The state Court of Appeals upheld Hobgood, but the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court ordered that the program proceed.

Thus the program began a lottery Wednesday to select about 2,400 children who will receive state vouchers. The winners will apply to their chosen schools, vouchers checks will go out and the undermining of public schools by the Republican-led General Assembly and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory will begin in earnest.

Except, as with so much that comes out of this General Assembly, the program is trying to push ideology past legality. The constitutional challenge is yet to be resolved. Should the courts decide vouchers violate the state constitution, the Opportunity Scholarship Program will be caught in the lurch. Children will be enrolled, voucher checks will have been cashed and state education officials will have spent resources setting up and administering a program that the courts say shouldn’t exist and must cease.

Republican leaders are leaving that potential mess for another day. Now their rallying cry is “school choice.” Senate leader Phil Berger describes the Opportunity Scholarship Program as liberating children “trapped” in poor performing public schools. Winners of the voucher lottery will be free to study the Bible or the Quran at taxpayers’ expense. As for those others who didn’t win the lottery and remain “trapped,” Berger and other Republicans offer no help.

The truth is that the Opportunity Scholarship Program is a way of getting the camel’s nose into the tent of vouchers for everyone. Rather than tax sufficiently to pay public school teachers and support a strong system of public education, Republicans are giving up on public schools and sending students – and tax dollars – to the exits.

As for those children left behind in what’s left of real public schools, they won’t have a prayer.

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