Education

August 21, 2014

Voucher recipients face uncertainty as school year begins

The state’s new voucher program for low-income families has been declared unconstitutional, causing anxiety for hundreds of families at the start of a new school year.

Erin Zobrak was relieved, she said, when her two children started this week at The O’Neal School in Southern Pines.

Zobrak, a single mother and nail technician, could only afford the private school with the help of $8,400 in state-funded vouchers for Joey, a ninth-grader, and Shaelin, a fourth-grader.

But the family was thrown into chaos Thursday when a judge ruled that the so-called “Opportunity Scholarships” are unconstitutional.

“Now we don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow,” Zobrak said in an interview Thursday. “I’m just beside myself.”

Zobrak had upended her life to enroll the children at O’Neal. She took a new job near the school to be able to drive them the 30 minutes each way from their home in Harnett County. She planned to take community college courses nearby and spent $500 on textbooks for her son and daughter.

At the start of a new school year, hundreds of other families faced similar uncertainty because of the court ruling.

The state legislature had set aside $10 million for the new program for up to 2,400 low-income students to attend private and religious schools. As of Thursday, 1,879 scholarships had been accepted until payments were halted.

Zobrak spent Thursday afternoon working the phones, calling the state Attorney General’s Office, which will appeal the ruling, and the N.C. Association of Educators, which challenged the 2013 voucher law.

She and her children moved to North Carolina from Massachusetts in 2013. Last year, in Harnett County schools, Zobrak said, her son was bullied and her daughter, who suffers from an asthma-like condition, was inappropriately forced to walk laps in 90-degree heat for misbehavior. Her son, who has been classified as intellectually gifted, fell behind when he was not immediately placed into an accelerated math class, she said.

The small school atmosphere at O’Neal suited the children.

“This was our opportunity,” she said. “We feel like the rug was pulled out from under us.”

At Raleigh Christian Academy, administrator Dwight Ausley estimated that a dozen or more families had been promised the vouchers.

“It disappoints me for these families,” Ausley said. “But at the same time, they already have an investment made at Raleigh Christian, so it’s not like I can turn my back on them.”

Ausley said the school has a small budget for financial aid, and none of the voucher recipients were also receiving school aid.

Students have already started school, and even though the school has not received payment, Ausley said he hopes everything will work out for the families.

“I’m really here to encourage them and reassure them, ‘Listen, we don’t know what’s going to happen but we don’t want you to go anywhere.’ ”

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