Op-Ed

A voucher system that allows school discrimination cannot stand in NC

Judge Robert Hobgood's August 2014 decision ruling the N.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional will be heard at the N.C. Supreme Court on Feb. 17. The Opportunity Scholarship Program should be repealed as it permits private schools to discriminate against student applicants and it relieves the North Carolina General Assembly of its constitutional responsibility to provide free and equal education to our state's youth.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program permits private schools to discriminate based on any number of characteristics by failing to address the issue in legislation, laying false hope to parents who have been told they'll be able to choose the best school for their children. The truth is, parents will be able to choose only from private schools to which their children are admitted.

Most private schools use an admissions process to screen applicants for pre-determined characteristics. Many applications like those of Trinity Academy of Raleigh and An-noor Quran Academy ask specific questions about prospective student and parent beliefs related to religion, clearly targeting specific groups.

To highlight the effect of discrimination possible under the Opportunity Scholarship Program, consider the following scenario.

Let's say Mary from a poor Christian family and Aamir from a poor Muslim family both live between a failing public school and a private Christian school. Under the Opportunity Scholarship Program, both may qualify for school vouchers, but if Aamir is discriminated against by the Christian school for his Muslim faith, both do not have equal opportunity at education, as the state constitution requires.

The scenario exposed by Mary and Aamir should be kept in mind when school voucher proponents say the General Assembly is maintaining its responsibility to provide "a genuine and uniform system of free public schools [] wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students" (NC State Constitution, Article 9, Section 2). By implementing the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the General Assembly has not provided an equal opportunity for all students as shown by Aamir's case and has therefore not met its constitutional responsibilities.

All the General Assembly has accomplished is to leave its constituents with a public education system that creates educational inequalities based on socio-economic status and a publicly funded voucher system that creates educational inequalities based on whatever discriminatory practice a private school chooses.

The Secular Coalition for North Carolina strongly opposes diversion of public funds to private, predominately religious and wholly unaccountable schools in direct conflict with North Carolina's constitutional mandate that public educational funds "shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools" (NC State Constitution, Article 9, Section 6).

The N.C. Supreme Court should uphold Judge Hobgood's decision ruling the N.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional.

Matthew Lindauer is a member of the Secular Coalition for North Carolina in New Bern.

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