Judge’s Ruling Pauses North Carolina Voucher Program

North Carolina Superior Court judge Robert Hobgood’s recent ruling halts a North Carolina law that had allowed low-income families to use state-funded vouchers to send their children to private or religious schools. The program is called Opportunity Scholarships, and currently has 4,300 applicants vying for a chance at the $4,200 annual grant per child.

Hobgood issued a preliminary injunction stopping the grants after more than five hours of hearings over two days. He said he found action was necessary because of the state constitution’s requirement that taxpayer funding for primary and secondary schools should be used exclusively for running “a uniform system of free public schools.”

Emery P. Dalesio of the Associated Press writes that the grants would start in the next academic year and are only offered to those families who qualify for a free or reduced price lunch program, with the income limit for these programs set at $44,000 for a family of four. Those families whose children already attending private school would not be able to apply.

Supporters of the voucher program say it gives low-income families who are not having their child’s needs met at public school another option. They also say that the $10 million program can save the state money because of the high cost of public schools.

The program represents “a way out for families who have become unhappy with the public schools and a way for them to access a school they believe will better fit the needs of their children,” said Richard Komer of the Arlington, Va. -based Institute for Justice.

Two separate lawsuits were filed by the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association, and dozens of school boards have questioned the legality of the program. Opponents say that spending taxpayer money on private or religious schools is unconstitutional. They also argue that some schools discriminate during the admission process and don’t have the same accountability regarding academic standards as public schools.

Edwin Speas, an attorney for the opponents, says the program hurts rural counties the most, because, “If five students in Hyde County accept the voucher, (the district) will lose the equivalent of funds to employ two teachers. That’s a big blow in a small system.”

Komer, who is defending the Opportunity Scholarship program, disagrees, saying that vouchers affect a small portion of school funding. Assistant Attorney General Lauren Clemmons says that stopping the program leaves the families who have applied for the vouchers uncertain about their child’s educational future.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, who co-sponsored the law that created the Opportunity Scholarships, expressed his disappointment with the program set back.

“The only constitutional issue the judge ruled on can be fixed in the short session (of the General Assembly) just by appropriating another $11 million to the public schools, and I’m sure we’ll be appropriating more than that for the next fiscal year,” Stam said. “So, this is a temporary roadblock.”