North Carolina’s Supreme Court has rejected a request from legislative leaders for an emergency release of voucher funds while they appeal a court decision that declared the program unconstitutional.
The state’s highest court, which just had a change in leadership with the mandatory retirement of Chief Justice Sarah Parker, offered little explanation for the decision. Mark Martin, who had been senior associate justice since 2006, became the N.C. Supreme Court chief justice on Monday.
Last week, the leaders of the N.C. House of Representatives and the N.C. Senate, along with several parents who are advocates of the N.C. “Opportunity Scholarship” program, turned to the N.C. Supreme Court when a similar request to the N.C. Court of Appeals failed.
A three-judge appeals court panel ruled that such a request was premature.
Judge Robert Hobgood, the N.C. Superior Court judge who declared it a violation of the North Carolina Constitution to use public taxpayer assistance for private schools tuition, had not issued a written ruling at the time.
The ruling, now written and entered into the record on Aug. 28, will be at the core of an appeal expected to take a more traditional legal path.
Usually, decisions in Superior Court are appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals. The N.C. Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter on state constitutional issues.
The critics of Hobgood’s ruling can ask again for an emergency order from a Court of Appeals panel and the Supreme Court, because both courts rejected the previous requests “without prejudice.”
Hobgood immediately halted the distribution of state money set aside for vouchers. He told attorneys in a Wake County Superior Court hearing in August that he had concluded that legislators violated the state Constitution when they adopted the program in 2013.
Though an unexplained shift in state scheduling for distribution of the vouchers could have meant funds were distributed before Hobgood’s ruling, an electronic glitch prevented that.
Legislative leaders, several parents and initially N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper sought an emergency disbursement of the taxpayer funds to 1,878 children who had accepted grants for this year.
The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority initiated the first of a series of planned disbursements on Aug. 18 for 363 students at 78 private schools. But the transaction was not completed because of a computer glitch.
An additional 212 applicants had been selected for a second wave of disbursements, but they too were left in limbo because of the change in disbursement scheduling.
Voucher advocates described Hobgood’s ruling as one that threw “the educational future of these students into turmoil.”
But critics of the program described the scheduling shift as political gamesmanship meant to put opponents in a difficult position of trying to recoup funds from children set to attend private schools with state dollars.