The legal battle over the state’s school voucher program has skipped a customary step and moved straight to North Carolina’s Supreme Court.
On Friday, the state’s highest court unexpectedly moved to take up the appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down the so-called “Opportunity Scholarships.”
The case centers on the constitutionality of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school tuition. It had been bound for the N.C. Court of Appeals.
But Friday’s Supreme Court decision allows the appeal to jump a step. Voucher proponents say it will mean a quicker resolution to the case that has left the voucher issue in limbo.
“All parties should be delighted with this development because the case was ultimately headed for the N.C. Supreme Court regardless of the decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals,” N.C. House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam said in a news release.
Burton Craige, attorney for plaintiffs in one of the cases, said he is glad the process will move ahead more swiftly.
“No one had requested it, so it’s unusual,” Craige said. “But we welcome prompt review by the Supreme Court and a prompt ruling, so that no more taxpayer funds are spent on this unconstitutional program.”
Still, it is likely to be months until oral arguments before the court, Craige said.
The case has had twists and turns through the courts already.
There are actually two parallel lawsuits challenging the vouchers – one brought by 25 plaintiffs and sponsored by the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center, and one brought by 71 school boards and the N.C. School Boards Association.
A 2013 law created the voucher program, providing for up to $4,200 each for 2,400 low-income students to attend private schools. The legislature set aside $10 million for the program, which was due to start this fall.
In August, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that using public money for private school tuition violates the North Carolina constitution. At the time, he said: “Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose.”
The voucher money originally had been set up for a September release date, but that deadline was changed to Aug. 15 with little explanation. That meant the money was supposed to be available to students before Hobgood’s ruling. A technical glitch prevented that, however.
Hobgood’s ruling stopped the distribution of funds at the start of the school year, leaving voucher families worrying about how they would cover tuition. Private and religious schools enrolled many of the students anyway.
Attorney General Roy Cooper and legislative leaders asked the state appeals court to release the money while an appeal was pending. Last month, the Court of Appeals issued a decision allowing money to be disbursed to the 1,878 students who had already accepted vouchers. But no new voucher money could be given out, the court said.
On Sept. 26, the first checks, totaling $1.1 million, went out, said Elizabeth McDuffie of the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, the agency that oversees the scholarships. The money will help pay tuition for 568 students at 109 schools, most of which are religious schools.
A change in software has stalled the disbursements, McDuffie said, but another batch of checks should go out in late October. About 200 more students’ scholarships are ready to be released.
Voucher advocates were buoyed by Friday’s move by the Supreme Court to take over the case.
Renée Flaherty, an attorney for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which represents two families in the case, called it an exciting development for North Carolina families.
“The Supreme Court has recognized the importance of resolving these cases quickly, so that the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the future of this program can be lifted as soon as possible,” Flaherty said in a news release.