A judge’s ruling on Thursday declaring North Carolina’s school voucher program unconstitutional threw hundreds of families into chaos and struck a blow against the Republican education agenda in North Carolina.
Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled on Thursday 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 “Opportunity Scholarships” wondering how they would meet tuition bills after plans to issue vouchers were immediately halted.
It also buoyed the spirits of voucher opponents who argued against diverting public money for private and religious schools.
“This upholds North Carolina’s long-standing commitment to public education – public education creates productive citizens, a strong economy, and a great democracy,” Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First, a nonpartisan organization that lobbies for public money for public schools, said in a statement.
Phil Berger, N.C. Senate president pro tem and an architect of major education policy shifts in North Carolina, criticized Hobgood’s decision to halt a school-choice policy that many Republicans across the country champion.
“Today’s ruling by a single trial court judge advances a clear political agenda ahead of the needs of thousands of North Carolina children,” Berger said in a statement. “We are committed to providing students a sound, basic education – and that’s the very reason we don’t want to trap disabled and underprivileged children in low-performing schools that are failing to deliver on that responsibility.”
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has raised concerns about parts of the Republican legislative agenda, quickly announced plans for his office to appeal, according to Noelle Talley, his spokeswoman.
“Our attorneys believe that this is a constitutional issue that must be decided by the appellate courts,” Talley said in a statement shortly after the ruling.
A diverse group, including teachers, parents, a former state school superintendent and many of North Carolina’s 115 school boards filed a lawsuit in December 2013 questioning the constitutionality of vouchers.
The N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center, a left-leaning advocacy group, filed one lawsuit and the N.C. School Boards Association, which was joined by 71 of the state’s 115 school districts – including Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Chatham, Durham and Orange counties – also sued the state.
GOP: Law helps families
Republican leaders contend the voucher program offers low-income children a choice for a private-school education that better meets their individual needs after the public schools failed to do so .
Under the program, low-income families who wanted to send their children to private schools could have gotten as much as $4,200 annually in taxpayer dollars.
To be eligible, parents had to have their children enrolled in a public school and meet federal income requirements for their children to receive subsidized lunches.
The challengers have described the program as a broad assault on the state’s public schools, siphoning public dollars for private school use. They also contend it violates fundamental provisions of the state constitution.
Hobgood agreed Thursday.
“Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose,” Hobgood said in his ruling.
In his decision, he mentioned the protracted Leandro lawsuit in the North Carolina courts, which requires the state to ensure that students receive a sound, basic education, as the state constitution requires. Hobgood said lawmakers can’t delegate that authority to “unregulated private schools.” He added that the voucher program, as described, left it to parents to assess their own children as “at-risk” without any public analysis.
“It appears to this court that the General Assembly is seeking to push at-risk students from low-income families into non-public schools in order to avoid the cost of providing them a sound, basic education in public schools as mandated by the Leandro decision,” Hobgood said. “The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public, taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.”
Hobgood ruled in favor of the voucher challengers on each of their constitutional claims.
State attempted to pay
“Obviously, we’re thrilled,” said Bob Orr, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice and N.C. Court of Appeals judge and a member of the legal team challenging the vouchers. “We felt the Constitution of North Carolina was clear about the limitations it placed on the legislature.”
Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), added: “Today is truly a great day for our students, our public schools and all North Carolinians. “... Clearly the idea of using taxpayer money to fund unaccountable private schools is unacceptable.”
The state received more than 5,500 applications for vouchers.
Families in the application pool identified which private schools they wanted to attend, with religious schools being among the top choices. Public schools cannot promote religion, but there is no such restriction on the private schools that take public vouchers.
Also, private schools do not have to give state exams or meet public school regulations. They must, however, give a national exam of the school’s choosing and report results for scholarship students.
Initially, the voucher release date was set as Sept. 19. But that was changed with little explanation to Aug. 15, setting up a timetable that could have meant funds were released before the judge’s decision.
‘No money has left’
The state agency in charge of administering the program had tried to disburse the first round of funds last week, but a technical glitch prevented the payments from going through, said Elizabeth McDuffie, director of grants, training and research at the agency.
The process was launched again starting on Monday with the goal of getting funds at the private schools by the end of this week.
When Hobgood ruled Thursday morning, the disbursement was halted.
“No money has left the building,” McDuffie said.
The law made $10 million in scholarship money available for up to 2,400 students for a maximum of $4,200 each.
As of Thursday morning before the judge’s ruling, 1,879 scholarships had been accepted by recipients, McDuffie said.
Presumably those families will now have to make other plans or come up with tuition payments themselves.
By Thursday midday, information about the Opportunity Scholarships had been removed from the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority’s website.