Court actions and delays create a school voucher mess

Here’s a notion that shouldn’t baffle the state Supreme Court: The state Constitution means what it says.

What the Constitution says is that taxpayer money “shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.” That means that a pet program of Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore – The Opportunity Scholarship Program – appears to be unconstitutional. It sets aside more that $10 million in public money to fund vouchers that selected low-income children could use to pay tuition at private and religious schools.

Superior Court Judge Robert A. Hobgood declared the program unconstitutional last August after public school advocates sued. But that ruling came after the state agency in charge of the program moved up the date planned for distributing tuition funding, from what would have been after Hobgood ruled to shortly before his hearing.

The plaintiffs objected to that release, but the state Court of Appeals last September foolishly let the funds go and the program got rolling pending an appeal on its constitutionality. That meant that 1,878 students who had already qualified for vouchers of up to $4,200 could receive their money to attend private schools.

Enter now the state Supreme Court. It preempted the appeals process and decided to rule directly on the program’s constitutionality. That was in October. The court still hasn’t ruled on what would seem a clear-cut case.

Meanwhile, children who entered this program are caught between the high-pressure tactics of the Republican sponsors and the plodding pace of the Supreme Court.

This week, Berger and Moore asked the high court to approve another round of voucher funding while the justices still ponder whether such spending is legal. The lawmakers don’t have much of a legal case, but they do have the leverage of children who acted on an opportunity the courts made available and could get caught without tuition money for the coming school year.

What lawmakers should have done was wait for a ruling on the voucher program. That they allowed children to get into a private school without the the certainty that they could stay is reprehensible. It suggests that what really matters is winning the ideological and legal fight over vouchers rather than the children they say they want to help.

The plight of the children is unfortunate, but not germane to the legal issue at hand. There should be no further voucher funding while this adventure in school choice is operating in a legal limbo. The children involved, if necessary, can attend public school while the matter is sorted out.

The Supreme Court should end what is fast becoming a fiasco of legislative gamesmanship and judicial dithering.