The N.C. Court of Appeals on Friday released state money that had been awarded to families to send their children to private or religious schools before a Superior Court judge declared the voucher program unconstitutional.
Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled in late August that a 2013 law to use public money for tuition at private and religious schools violates the North Carolina constitution.
The ruling, which came days after the start of a new school year for private schools, left hundreds of families who had intended to use the state money wondering how they would meet tuition bills after Hobgood put an immediate halt to distribution of the funds.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, state legislative leaders and several voucher advocates immediately asked the state appeals court for an emergency release of the money while they appealed Hobgood’s decision.
But the appeals court, at that time, said the request was premature because Hobgood had not issued his written ruling yet. The N.C. Supreme Court sent the matter back to the appeals court.
The decision issued Friday stated that the 1,878 students who had already accepted vouchers should receive the money. The ruling prevents the release of new voucher grants awarded after Hobgood announced his ruling in Wake County Superior Court on Aug. 21.
Darrell Allison, president of voucher advocates Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said the operative words for Friday were “big relief.”
Though none of the schools awaiting voucher money this year pushed students out, Allison said, the appeals court decision gives certainty to parents and schools affected by the Hobgood ruling.
Voucher opponents and supporters battling in court have agreed to an expedited appeals schedule that should have the issue decided in a few months – certainly before the next school year begins, Allison said.
Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, wasn’t certain what the voucher opponents’ next step would be, but said they were determined to see the lawsuit through to the end.
“The heart and soul of public schools are at stake with the vouchers,” Jewell said. “Our intent was to take it to the mat for the 1.5 million students, to continue to move forward and make sure that public dollars stay in public schools.”
Initially, the voucher release date had been set as Sept. 19. But that was changed with little explanation to Aug. 15, setting up the timetable that meant money was released before Hobgood’s decision.
The state agency in charge of administering the program had tried to distribute the first round of money before the Hobgood hearing, but a technical glitch prevented the payments from going through.
The law made $10 million in scholarship money available for up to 2,400 students for a maximum of $4,200 each.
“Today’s ruling is welcome news for thousands of North Carolina families seeking to provide what’s best for their children,” Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate, said in a statement. “I commend the Court of Appeals for stopping the disruption these students have faced and unlocking the financial pathway for them to receive an education that best meets their needs.”
Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, lauded the portion of the appeals court ruling that halts the further awarding of vouchers to anyone other than the 1,878 already selected.
“We are pleased that the Court will not allow future taxpayer money to be used to fund private education while appeal of the case is pending,” Ellis said in a statement.
The association of educators, he said, advocated that no money be released prior to a court decision and also advocated “for a hearing schedule that would have eliminated this inconvenience to parents and students.” Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.