The N.C. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that North Carolina can use public tax dollars to help children attend private and religious schools.
The 4-3 decision reverses a ruling last summer by Judge Robert Hobgood in N.C. Superior Court.
The decision, which broke along political party lines with four Republican justices ruling to uphold the program and the three Democrats dissenting, means $10.8 million is freed for a program that has sparked much debate. State lawmakers want to provide $17.6 million in vouchers for the coming school year and to expand the program’s income-eligibility guidelines.
The four justices who ruled for the voucher program – Chief Justice Mark Martin and Justices Robert Edmunds, Barbara Jackson and Paul Newby – concluded that using tax dollars for education was a public purpose.
In his majority opinion, Martin wrote that, according to the most recent figures published by the Department of Public Instruction, a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students in North Carolina are not grade-level proficient in the subjects tested on the state’s end-of-year exams.
“Disagreement exists as to the innovations and reforms necessary to address this and other educational issues in our state,” Martin acknowledged in the ruling. “Our state and country benefit from the debate between those with differing viewpoints in this quintessentially political dialogue.
“Such discussions inform the legislative process. But the role of judges is distinguishable, as we neither participate in this dialogue nor assess the wisdom of legislation.”
The three dissenting justices – Robin Hudson, Cheri Beasley and Sam Ervin IV – concluded that North Carolina’s constitution prohibited using public dollars for private and religious schools regardless of quality or standards, as in the voucher program.
“The main constitutional flaw in this program is that it provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools’ contribution to public purposes; such a huge omission is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear,” Justice Hudson wrote in her dissent.
The news won quick praise from school-choice advocates and lament from voucher critics. Because the legal arguments were framed around language of the state constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years ago in favor of an Arizona school voucher program, no further legal proceedings are expected.
“This ruling makes clear that parents – not education bureaucrats or politicians – ought to be able to choose the educational pathway best suited to their children’s needs, and it empowers thousands of low-income families across the state to make that important choice,” Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said in a statement.
The much-anticipated ruling comes at a time when political parties and national advocacy groups have been contributing heavily to statewide judicial races.
The decision was especially welcomed by parents such as Bakoma Kintaudi of Garner, who were uncertain whether they’d have state funding to send their children to private schools this fall. Kintaudi plans to send her youngest daughter to Raleigh Christian Academy this fall after the good experience she said her three oldest children had there last year.
“I need a dictionary to define all the words I feel right now: elated, happy, relieved,” Kintaudi said. “We are jumping for joy. Thank God.”
But Public Schools First NC, an advocacy group that opposed vouchers, said the ruling will transfer tens of millions of desperately needed public education dollars to fund unaccountable private schools. “Today is a very sad day in the history of our state,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First NC, in a statement.
The decision comes a month after North Carolina’s Senate and House leaders asked the state’s highest court to release public money for private school vouchers while uncertainty remained about the constitutionality of the program. The court heard arguments for and against the use of public money at private and religious schools in late February.
“We have entered a dangerous new era when public funds can be sent to unaccredited, standardless private schools that are free to discriminate based on disability and religion,” said Burton Craige, a Raleigh attorney representing voucher challengers.
In August 2014, Hobgood declared the voucher program a violation of the North Carolina Constitution, saying “appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose.” The program, approved in 2013, provides low-income families who want to send their children to private schools as much as $4,200 annually in taxpayer dollars. Hobgood also ruled the program invalid because it doesn’t require that private K-12 schools meet state teaching standards.
In October, the N.C. Supreme Court unexpectedly moved to take the voucher case, meaning the legal case skipped a step at the N.C. Court of Appeals. In December, the state Supreme Court decided to fast-track the case and allow preparations for the coming year. That meant the State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program, could accept and screen scholarship applications and hold a lottery determining which students would receive the money if the court signs off and lawmakers follow through with funding.
The ruling paves the way for a major expansion in the voucher program from the 1,216 students who participated this past school year to as many 4,400 this fall.
Elizabeth McDuffie, executive director of the State Education Assistance Authority, said 1,103 students renewed their applications from last year. As of July 15, McDuffie said 1,539 new scholarships had been offered to 5,078 new applicants.
How many will receive scholarships for the 2015-16 school year is uncertain.
While the extra funding could increase the number of students in the program by several thousand, McDuffie said they’re holding off on increasing the awards to that amount until the state budget is adopted.
“There will be additional students, we just don’t know how many,” she said.
Triangle schools receiving voucher money
These schools received the most voucher students in the Triangle during the 2014-15 school year.
Number of Students
Word of God Christian Academy (Raleigh)
Al-Iman School (Raleigh)
Raleigh Christian Academy
Mt. Zion Christian Academy (Durham)
Upper Room Christian Academy
Source: Court documents