The N.C. Supreme Court’s vote to overturn the ruling that the education voucher program is unconstitutional means taxpayer funds will now flow freely to schools that are not required to have trained or certified teachers, any identified or minimum curriculum, any accreditation or criminal background checks for employees and that can discriminate on the basis of religion.
And as the state continues to struggle to meets its obligation to provide all students with a “sound basic education,” millions of dollars of public money will now go to support schools that are not subject to the fundamental education mandates of our state constitution.
The 4-3 decision was grounded in the determination that despite sending state funds to private entities, the voucher program is somehow consistent with the public purpose doctrine of the state constitution, which requires that with the expenditure of state funds, “the ultimate gain must be the public’s, not that of an individual or private entity.” A constitutionally permissible public purpose must involve “a reasonable connection with the [the state’s] convenience and necessity; and . . . benefits the public generally, as opposed to special interests or persons.”
The majority first declares that giving public money to “lower-income families so that their children have additional educational opportunities is well within the scope of permissible governmental action and is intimately related to the needs of our state’s citizenry.” Setting aside the obvious disconnect between this purported goal and the numerous other recent legislative acts that have made it more difficult for poor children to gain access to quality educational resources, this is an interesting descriptor: “lower-income.” Currently, voucher-eligible families must earn at or below 133 percent of the income qualification for the free or reduced-price lunch program. But every other voucher program across the country that was initially touted as giving educational opportunity to poor children was quickly expanded to include middle class families.
Immediately in the wake of the court’s ruling, legislative leaders talked about raising the eligibility requirements here. But does this language in the majority opinion mean that if the eligibility criteria are expanded, the program would violate public purpose doctrine? And as to benefiting the public generally, while the majority repeatedly touts that promoting educational opportunity is good for our state, it ignores the fact that similar programs elsewhere have led to divestment from the public schools where the vast majority of children (especially poor children) are educated.
As the dissents point out, the overwhelming evidence shows that voucher programs increase racial and socio-economic isolation of students and “exacerbate, rather than alleviate, educational, class, and racial divides.” Nothing in our state’s voucher plan prevents the same result. Moreover, our state’s flawed plan lacks the substantive educational standards that other jurisdictions impose on schools receiving vouchers.
The same week our state Supreme Court issued the voucher ruling, in another Wake County courtroom Judge Howard Manning explained that the failure to provide a certified teacher in every classroom is a per se violation of the constitutional mandate established by that same Supreme Court in its Leandro decision in 2004. In fact, none of the metrics established to measure a sound basic education apply to the private schools now receiving state support, nor do any requirements about the nature or quality of the education they provide.
There are essentially no rules, policies or oversight as to what or how kids learn in these schools, prompting the dissenting justices to conclude that when taxpayer money is used, the total absence of standards cannot be constitutional. “While students enrolled in private schools may be receiving a fine education, if taxpayer money is spent on a private school education that does not prepare them to function in and to contribute to our state’s society, that spending cannot be for public purposes only.”
The real purpose of the voucher program is clear: to privatize public education. In that regard, it is consistent with other legislative actions that undermine traditional public schools in North Carolina.
Mark Dorosin is managing attorney and Elizabeth Haddix is senior staff attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights in Chapel Hill.