August 21, 2014

Judge properly halts NC's voucher program

Judge Robert Hobgood makes a sound ruling against a state program that uses public funds for private school tuition.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled in February that North Carolina’s program of providing taxpayer dollars for private school vouchers was unconstitutional, and he rightly blocked it.

In May, his decision was reversed by the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court, and the first $700,000 for the program was released last week. But now Hobgood has ruled again that the law, a darling of Republican legislators and a transparent attempt to undermine public schools, is indeed unconstitutional, and he has stopped it.

The attorney general, he said, will have to figure out how to get the money back, should Hobgood’s ruling be upheld when appealed.

This law, based in little more than conservative ideology and a clear dislike of public education, was foolish from the start. Republicans disguised it, in effect, by offering eligibility only to lower-income families. Of course, the $4,200 maximum that would go to those families wouldn’t pay for the most elite private schools, where tuition can run $20,000.

The Leandro mandate

Hobgood saw through the deception. “It appears to this court,” he said, “that the General Assembly is seeking to push at-risk students from low-income families into nonpublic schools in order to avoid the cost of providing them a sound, basic education in public schools as mandated by the Leandro decision.

“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.”

The Leandro case, which low-wealth school districts filed against the state in 1994, resulted in a ruling that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide all children with a “sound, basic education.” It has forced more investment in poor school districts, and Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. has admirably monitored progress ever since.

There is an obvious church-state separation issue with providing public funds to private schools with religious affiliations. Hobgood also noted there are issues of oversight and quality. Private schools don’t have to meet the same curricula and teacher certification standards as public ones, he said.

Curious conservative agenda

The voucher program was part of a curious agenda on the part of conservative Republican lawmakers, who have engaged in legislative neglect of public schools. Their much-touted teacher pay increase, which likely came in response to a public backlash against their attacks on teachers and to the oft-reported statistics showing North Carolina near the bottom nationally in teacher pay, is itself uneven. Early-career teachers do get a substantial boost, but veterans get little.

Hobgood’s ruling, fortunately, has come before the activation of another law designed to ensure that conservatives prevail on such issues. Starting in September, three-judge panels will review all constitutional challenges to laws such as this one. Members of those panels will be appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, likely to be a Republican, and it’s safe to assume that GOP legislative leaders believe those panels will be conservative.

It’s all part of a plan to use control of the General Assembly and the courts and the governor’s office to steer North Carolina into the same ideologically designed lanes as Mississippi, South Carolina and other Southern states. The only guiding principles seem to be cutting taxes, dismantling regulation, de-emphasizing public education and downsizing government services.

Hobgood is standing against at least one of the worst manifestations of that push, the voucher law handing taxpayer money to people for private schools. Legislators’ claims that this is all about helping lower-income families provide better educations to their children are fooling no one. They want to expand vouchers to cover virtually all students, as the opponents of the program well know. At least there is one stumbling block.

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