A North Carolina judge has ruled the state’s new school voucher program for low-income families unconstitutional, leaving about 1,800 students and their parents in the lurch.
The vouchers, known as Opportunity Scholarships, pay for students to attend privately run K-12 schools that do not have to meet state curriculum or teacher certification requirements, which violates the state constitution, Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said Thursday.
Education is a highly politicized topic in North Carolina—even more so since 2012, when the swing state gave Republicans complete control of the government for the first time in a century. During the transition from Democrat to Republican control, both parties used education to balance the budget.
The state’s rank on teacher salaries fell into the bottom five nationwide before lawmakers agreed in July to a give teachers a raise. That’s partially why in December, liberal advocacy groups and 71 of the state’s 115 school districts sued the state over the 2013 voucher law, arguing it was wrong to divert funds away from public schools.
Under a longstanding state court ruling, the General Assembly must ensure students receive a quality education. And according to Raleigh’s WRAL-TV, Hobgood, a Democrat, said lawmakers can’t entrust that task to “unregulated private schools” and parents “who have self-assessed their children to be at risk.”
“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 ruled.
Voucher supporters say low-income parents shouldn’t be trapped in failing schools. While state schools do have approved standards, fewer than half met the Common Core standards before the state voted to replace them last month. And while the state spends more than $8,000 per pupil, the vouchers were only worth up to $4,200. State Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat often critical of the Republican agenda, pledged to appeal the ruling.
The North Carolina Educational Assistance Authority, which manages the voucher program’s $10 million budget, said none of that money was distributed. But while that’s less hassle for the state, the agency’s grants director, Elizabeth McDuffie, told WRAL that more than 1,800 children accepted scholarships through the lottery system. Not all of them have enrolled in a school yet, but many have bought uniforms and school supplies, and others have already started classes.
Parents and schools are flabbergasted.
Joy Faust’s two children were to start first and second grade at Raleigh’s Word of God Christian Academy on Monday, she told WRAL. “How’s it unconstitutional for me to make a decision to say ‘hey, I want my children to have options,’” she asked.
Tony Mangum of Tabernacle Christian School in Monroe told The Charlotte Observer that at least 24 students with vouchers were to start school Sept. 2. “Our first initial reaction was, ‘What in the world are we supposed to do?’” he said. The school’s plan now is to allow the children to begin school, hoping the ruling is overturned.
Attorney Bob Orr, who represents the voucher opponents, told WRAL that schools can do just that—hope for approved funds—or children can go back to public schools “with standards.”
At least a dozen states and the District of Columbia provide state-funded school vouchers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the idea remains a contentious subject nationwide, facing ideological flak on everything from church-state separation to the government’s role in education. States like Arizona, Louisiana, and Florida each lost court challenges to their voucher programs. But those states have found different funding sources or rewritten programs into tax credits or educational savings accounts to so far avoid further constitutional challenges.
Hobgood issued a temporary injunction in February halting the program until he could consider the case, but North Carolina’s generally conservative state Supreme Court overruled him in May. The high court could issue a similar stay on Hobgood’s new ruling if appellate courts do not. Generally conservative Indiana and Oklahoma Supreme Courts have upheld similar programs.