The North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s Opportunity for Scholarship Program is, after several challenges, constitutional. The decision dismissed a ruling by the Wake County Superior Court and made clear that the program will be going forward.
The program was enacted in 2013 and had as its goal assisting low-income parents to afford private school for children whose specific needs were not being met by the public school system, according to the Institute for Justice. IfJ Senior Attorney Dick Komer, who is lead counsel for two families who intervened in the case, said that when the scholarship program was enacted the legislature joined with 20 other states to demonstrate that parents need additional educational resources for their children.
“The great thing about school choice programs like North Carolina’s is that school districts can no longer take low-income students’ continued attendance for granted, said Komer. “Today’s decision means that families using scholarships not only get access to schools better able to meet their children’s unique needs, but the districts now have an incentive to better serve their students. School choice benefits all students.”
The program allows low-income families to send their children to the private school of their choice with a scholarship of up to $4,200. In 2014 Judge Robert Hobgood halted the program and found it to be unconstitutional. The families represented by the Institute for Justice challenged the decision in the Court of Appeals, which allowed the program to continue while the case was being considered. But, surprisingly, the Supreme Court took the case on before it was seen by the Court of Appeals.
The ruling by the Supreme Court stated that the North Carolina constitution “specifically envisions that children in our state may be educated by means outside of the public school system.” The Court added that the “ultimate beneficiaries” are the citizens of the state.
One of the parents involved in the case, Cynthia Perry, said she will be sending her daughter to a private school through the use of an Opportunity Scholarship.
“This program has made it possible for Faith to leave the public schools and to attend a school that is right for her, and we could not be happier that the Court recognized parents’ right to choose the best school for their child,” said Perry. “Faith’s future is now brighter because of the Court’s decision.”
The ruling in the Supreme Court was 4-3 in favor of the state’s scholarship system.
Mark Binker of WRAL-TV writes that Hobgood did not believe the scholarships were acceptable since private schools can discriminate in their admission and schools do not have the same curricula and teacher certification as the public school system. However, advocates of the program say it gives students who are struggling or failing a chance at having their needs met and to succeed in school.
To be eligible for the program, a family must not make more than 133% of the threshold used to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Those opposed say the program takes money away from the public school system and uses public school funding to support schools that may very well teach a religious curriculum.
“This decision will continue the damage being done to our public schools and students by allowing private vouchers to drain money from our already underfunded schools,” Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said in a statement. “We believe the Constitution is clear: public funds for education should be used exclusively for public schools.”
But many legislators, like Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake), who backed the program were celebrating what they considered “realistic access to educational options for their children.” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said, “This ruling makes clear that parents – not education bureaucrats or politicians – ought to be able to choose the educational pathway best suited to their children’s needs.”
During the last school year, the program funded 1,216 students from low-income families with over $4.6 million to attend 224 private schools, according to Michael Biesecker of the Associated Press. About three-quarters of the schools were affiliated with a religious group.
Christine Bischoff, a staff attorney at the North Caroline Justice Center, believes the program should not be welcomed by people in the state who care about public education. When public funds are used to send children to private schools, underfunded public schools will be harmed, she says.