Under the Dome

Justices cement vouchers in NC

The state Supreme Court’s ruling last week that cemented approval for public tax dollars to fund private and religious school educations in North Carolina was highly anticipated and closely watched.

That it was a 4-3 decision, with the court’s four Republicans ruling in the majority and the three Democrats dissenting, added to the concernment.

It is difficult to predict the impact of a court’s decision. But this one, by week’s end, had the feel of providing a significant change in how the state educates its students.

Many Republicans now are interested in throttling up the voucher program, which has been spare and confined to providing schooling for children who met certain income limits and other qualifications. (About 4,400 students are set to receive the scholarships in 2015-16 out of 1.5 million public school students.) What’s next will bear close watching.

It also prompted wide reactions, including praise from leading lawmakers. A group called Public Schools First NC issued a statement expressing that it was “disheartened” about the transfer of money to “unaccountable private schools” with the comment: “This is the end of public schools in NC as we know it.”

Here are excerpts from the majority decision, written by Chief Justice Mark Martin, and dissents, written by justices Robin Hudson and Cheri Beasley.

The majority

“When assessing a challenge to the constitutionality of legislation, this Court’s duty is to determine whether the General Assembly has complied with the constitution. If constitutional requirements are met, the wisdom of the legislation is a question for the General Assembly. In performing our task, we begin with a presumption that the laws duly enacted by the General Assembly are valid. North Carolina courts have the authority and responsibility to declare a law unconstitutional, but only when the violation is plain and clear.”

“In this case plaintiffs challenge the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows a small number of students in lower-income families to receive scholarships from the State to attend private school. 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 with respect to the subjects tested on the State’s end-of-year assessments. Disagreement exists as to the innovations and reforms necessary to address this and other educational issues in our state. 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. Just as the legislative and executive branches of government are expected to operate within their constitutionally defined spheres, so must the courts.

“Our constitutionally assigned role is limited to a determination of whether the legislation is plainly and clearly prohibited by the constitution. Because no prohibition in the constitution or in our precedent forecloses the General Assembly’s enactment of the challenged legislation here, the trial court’s order declaring the legislation unconstitutional is reversed.”

Hudson’s dissent

“I cannot agree that the spending of taxpayer funds on private school education through the Opportunity Scholarship Program here serves “public purposes only” as our constitution requires. In Leandro v. State this Court concluded that “the right to education provided in the state constitution is a right to a sound basic education. An education that does not serve the purpose of preparing students to participate and compete in the society in which they live and work is devoid of substance and is constitutionally inadequate.

“We went on to say in Hoke County Board of Education v. State that a sound basic education should include an ‘effective instructional program’ taught by ‘competent, certified, well trained’ teachers and led by ‘well-trained competent’ principals. Admittedly, this is the standard we have set for our public schools, not our private ones, and it is conceivable that we would set a less comprehensive substantive standard for private schools. However, a large gap opens between Leandro-required standards and no standards at all, which is what we have here. When taxpayer money is used, the total absence of standards cannot be constitutional.”

Beasley’s dissent

“Free public education historically has been, and today remains, vital to American life. Its diminishment in quality or its concentration among a few invites despots to power and risks oppressing the rest. With continued necessity for preserving and promoting free public education clearly in view, I turn to the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“The Court correctly explains that our circumspect inquiry is constrained to the facial challenge presented in view of established principles of constitutional interpretation. Nonetheless, the majority’s opinion should not be read so broadly as to set an impossible standard for a facial challenge to legislation, particularly when the legislation stands to affect the education of the children of North Carolina.”

Ruling reaction

Gov. Pat McCrory (R): I came to office promising to defend and expand educational opportunities for all children and all families regardless of circumstance. Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is a victory for every parent whose child is being underserved in North Carolina. This is a victory for choice, and it’s a victory for North Carolina students and their families.

Yevonne Brannon, chair of Public Schools First NC, a public school advocacy group: Today is a very sad day in the history of our state. Our long-standing tradition of commitment to excellence in public education has made North Carolina a jewel among southern states. We cannot fathom how this decision upholds the constitutional promise that all children receive a sound, basic education within the public school system. And we are deeply concerned as strong public schools are critical for growing our economy and maintaining the vitality of our communities. ... All children lose when public schools are further depleted of their funds, and those funds are then used for unworthy ends.

House Speaker Tim Moore (R): We are elated that students currently benefiting from the scholarship, as well as future scholarship recipients, will be able to continue to achieve their educational goals through this unique opportunity.

Senate leader Phil Berger (R): (T)he Supreme Court reaffirmed that education in North Carolina is about our children and their future. 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.

N.C. Justice Center, a liberal advocacy group: Today is a sad day for any North Carolinian who cares about public education. The North Carolina Supreme Court disregarded the plain language of our state Constitution, which provides that public funds for education must be used “exclusively” to support the public schools. A voucher scheme that lacks standards and accountability will be allowed to continue draining funds from our public schools, harming students across our state and undermining the foundation of North Carolina’s prosperity.

Risky voucher schemes like the current law will not require schools to have qualified teachers or a standard curriculum, and allow publicly funded private schools to discriminate against students on the basis of income, disability or religion. Schools that receive vouchers have no accountability for student learning and achievement.

We are deeply disappointed by the Court’s decision.

Read the court’s ruling at: http://bit.ly/1SEW2Ft