NC judge to issue voucher ruling on Thursday

A Superior Court judge told lawyers on Tuesday that he planned to issue a ruling Thursday in the battle over the N.C. legislature’s school voucher plan.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood heard arguments in Wake County Superior Court on Tuesday on whether it’s constitutional for public money to be used to pay for tuition at private and religious schools.

A diverse group, including teachers, parents, a former state school superintendent and many of North Carolina’s 115 school boards, are challenging the program.

The N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center, a left-leaning advocacy group, filed one lawsuit against the voucher program. 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.

Republican leaders describe the program as “Opportunity Scholarships.” Advocates contend the voucher program, adopted in 2013, offers low-income children a choice for a private school education that better meets their individual needs after the public schools did not.

The program provides as much as $4,200 annually in taxpayer dollars for low-income families who want to send their children to private schools.

To be eligible, parents have 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. They also contend it violates fundamental provisions of the state constitution.

The state received more than 5,500 applications for vouchers before a February ruling in which Hobgood froze distribution of the funds.

Hobgood said that he had heard enough evidence to question the constitutionality and allowed the lawsuit to proceed despite requests for a dismissal.

In May, the N.C. Supreme Court reversed Hobgood’s decision to block the distribution of voucher funds and opened the door for the first wave of money to be released.

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, a state website listed Sept. 19 as the distribution date for the funds.

Such a time frame would have meant the challengers and lawsuit defendants would have had the hearing on Tuesday and known whether Hobgood thought the program passed constitutional muster.

The distribution date has been changed, and the first $730,000 in tuition grants is scheduled for release.

An attorney for the state said Tuesday in court that though the money was eligible for release, it had not been distributed.

It was unclear what would happen if the voucher funds had been distributed to the families and the judge found the program to be unconstitutional.