NC school vouchers may flow before court hearing

Associated PressJuly 17, 2014 

— Taxpayer money for private or religious school tuition may start flowing to North Carolina families before a judge rules whether the program is legal.

The state agency in charge of the Opportunity Scholarships late last month advanced to August 15 the date it planned to distribute tuition funding to families of students who won a lottery. That date is a month earlier than the North Carolina State Educational Assistance Authority previously projected and a week before a scheduled court date intended to debate the law's constitutionality.

The educational assistance authority isn't setting its timetable based on the legal dispute, executive director Steven Brooks said Thursday. The agency decided distributing the money sooner was better than later, he said.

"I think we just said let's get it out there as soon as we can," Brooks said.

But distributing the money before a court hearing late next month would cause needless chaos, said Burton Craige, an attorney for plaintiffs who are challenging the voucher program.

"It's taxpayer money. It makes sense to have a ruling on whether it's constitutional before we release that money to private schools," Craige said. "Once money is paid out, it's hard to get it back."

Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood blocked the program in February until the issues raised in two lawsuits could be fully considered at a trial. Lawyers for two dozen taxpayers and groups representing teachers and many of the state's 115 school boards had challenged whether it was constitutional for the state to spend public money on K-12 education at private or religious schools.

The state Supreme Court later unfroze the program in May, and both sides looked ahead to arguing their case before Hobgood on Friday. That hearing was postponed until at least next week.

Attorney General Roy Cooper's office, which is defending the state law, argued in court documents that with the program cleared to go ahead the money should be distributed.

"Plaintiffs have no inherent right to throw the program, the students, and their families into chaos by trying to stop the processes for implementing the program," state attorney Lauren Clemmons wrote in a court filing Wednesday.

Children seeking scholarships must qualify for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program, which has an income limit of about $44,000 for a family of four. The grants aren't available to students already attending private schools.

The General Assembly set aside $10 million last year to give up to $4,200 each for up to 2,400 students to meet tuition for the academic year beginning next month. About 4,500 applications met the criteria and were ranked in a lottery last month, Brooks said.

Funds were offered to about 2,300 students, Brooks said. About 1,000 already have accepted the awards, he said. About 50 declined for various reasons including already enrolling in public charter school already, Brooks said. How many students get the scholarships would depend on who accepts and whether they all need the maximum available to cover tuition, he said.

Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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