This judge said NC vouchers were unconstitutional. He was right

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood delivering his ruling that North Carolina’s school voucher program is unconstitutional, siphoning public dollars for private school use, in a Wake County courtroom on Aug. 21., 2014.
Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood delivering his ruling that North Carolina’s school voucher program is unconstitutional, siphoning public dollars for private school use, in a Wake County courtroom on Aug. 21., 2014. News & Observer file

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood is owed an apology.

The judge, who retired at the end of April after 38 years on the bench, ruled in 2014 that the law establishing North Carolina’s new school voucher program was unconstitutional for several reasons, one being that it sets no academic standards for schools receiving public funds. That failure, he noted, meant that the schools receiving vouchers could ignore the state Constitution’s requirement that publicly funded schools provide a sound, basic education.

“The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” Hobgood said.

In 2015, the state Supreme Court's Republican-backed majority — Chief Justice Mark Martin and Justices Robert Edmunds, Barbara Jackson and Paul Newby — voted 4-3 to reverse Hobgood's ruling. That allowed the voucher program known as “the Opportunity Scholarships program” to go forward.

Four years later, experience has rendered its own verdict.

It finds for Hobgood.

A recent League of Women Voters review of curricula used at schools receiving vouchers found that most are “biblical world view” schools where Bible stories are taught as scientific and historic facts. Taxpayers are paying for students to be taught that the world is 6,000 years old, that the Genesis flood created the Grand Canyon, that evolution didn't happen and that environmentalism is a liberal plot. UNC-Chapel Hill professors who reviewed history and science textbooks used at the schools describe them as inaccurate “nonsense” and said they fall far short of educational standards.

The voucher program aimed at children from lower-income families provides up to $4,200 per student, per school year. This year, just over 7,300 students attending more than 400 schools were awarded vouchers at a cost of about $29 million. Most of the schools are using "biblical world view" textbooks.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, written by Martin, said schools receiving vouchers were not covered by the Supreme Court’s landmark Leandro ruling in which the state’s constitutional obligation to provide “a sound basic education” was identified. In Leandro, the court found that a public school 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.”

But Martin and the majority ruled that that standard “has no applicability outside of the public schools.” Thus, he wrote, “there is no merit to the argument that a legislative program designed to increase educational opportunity in our state is one that fails to ‘guard and maintain’ the ‘right to the privilege of education.’ “

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Robin Hudson said the absence of academic standards is “such a huge omission it is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear.” Justices Cheri Beasley and Sam Ervin IV also voted to uphold Hobgood's ruling.

The league’s report follows a critical 2017 assessment of the voucher program by researchers at Duke University’s School of Law. Their report found that “accountability measures for North Carolina private schools receiving vouchers are among the weakest in the country.”

A N.C. State University study released Monday found that a sampling of students receiving vouchers outperformed their peers in public schools. But half of the students sampled were attending Catholic schools, which follow curricula that meet the state’s public school standard. Catholic schools account for only 10 percent of those receiving vouchers.

At a time when public school teachers have marched on the state Capitol to protest a lack of public school funding, the Legislature has allocated more than $40 million this year for Opportunity Scholarships and plans to triple the annual amount over the next decade.

State Senate leader Phil Berger and other Republicans dubbed the program “Opportunity Scholarships” because the payments supposedly let lower-income students escape failing schools. But in many instances, they have simply let students escape school altogether to be taught religious notions instead of facts.

It’s fine if fundamentalists want to teach their children that evolution doesn’t happen and dinosaurs found a spot in Noah’s ark, but they shouldn’t be paid to do it with public dollars. Publicly supported education should meet public standards, just as Hobgood said.

Reach Ned Barnett at nbarnett@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4512.