It is distressing on its face, this idea that public money can go toward the expenses of private schooling. It crosses the divide between public and private, between church and state, between common sense and partisan ideology.
And yet, in a ruling with a clear partisan flavor, the North Carolina Supreme Court, having snatched the confrontation over a school voucher program out of the hands of the N.C. Court of Appeals where it should properly have gone, has upheld the Republican legislature’s voucher program. This is a devastating ruling for the future of public education.
The court’s Republican majority tipped its hand when it agreed to take on the voucher case, in which plaintiffs were arguing the unconstitutionality of the program, skipping the normal step in the judicial process that would have sent the case to the state Court of Appeals after a Superior Court judge struck down the program in a clear and precise way.
Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood found the voucher program invalid because, under the state constitution, North Carolina owes all students a “sound, basic education,” and private and religious schools where vouchers can be used are not subject to state standards for public transportation, curriculum, teacher certification and testing and can discriminate in their admissions.
The high court’s taking of the case was a sign Republican justices were going to support the agenda of Republican lawmakers. And that’s what happened.
The “Opportunity Scholarship” program is geared toward lower income families. The same lawmakers who have made public education a target backed the voucher program on the argument that lower-income parents who weren’t satisfied with their children’s education in public schools should have an alternative. That’s ironic, in that the GOP-led General Assembly has demonstrated mainly contempt for the poor, the failure to expand Medicaid being a prime example.
The education alternatives that advocates of this voucher plan have touted include religious-based schools, which opens all sorts of questions about church-state separation.
But the real purpose of calling the program a help for lower-income families was to grease the skids for a broader voucher program. It’s coming.
The voucher program will drain money from the mainstream public schools to which the vast majority of North Carolinians send their children. Republicans, in advocating more charter schools – public schools without some of the rules of conventional ones – and in trying to get by on the cheap with regard to teacher pay and now with their voucher program, are dismantling a system that has worked well for 100 years.
It is a sorry and sad day when a Supreme Court majority showing its partisan colors offers aid and comfort to legislators with chips on their shoulders about public education and driven by a hard-right ideology that trumps good sense.