Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled last week that a 2013 law allowing tuition for private and religious schools to come from public money is in violation of the North Carolina state constitution.
"Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose," Hobgood said.
The ruling was not handed down until after the start of the school year for private schools in the state, leaving many families to wonder how they would pay for the tuition, now that they can no longer look to the "Opportunities Scholarship."
The program allowed low-income families as much as $4,200 each year to send their children to private schools, using taxpayer dollars. Students needed to be enrolled in public schooling and be eligible for the subsidized lunch program in order to be considered for the funding.
Supporters of the program believe the opportunity gave children a chance to succeed where their public school system was failing them. Many have criticized the ruling.
"Today's ruling by a single trial court judge advances a clear political agenda ahead of the needs of thousands of North Carolina children," North Carolina Senate President Phil Berger said in a statement. "We are committed to providing students a sound, basic education – and that's the very reason we don't want to trap disabled and underprivileged children in low-performing schools that are failing to deliver on that responsibility."
A lawsuit was filed in 2013 by a group of parents, teachers, and school board members, which put into question the constitutionality of the scholarships. The group claimed that in the end, the act of taking money away from the public school system is only hurting the state's districts.
The new ruling has the group in high spirits.
"This upholds North Carolina's long-standing commitment to public education – public education creates productive citizens, a strong economy, and a great democracy," Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First, a nonpartisan organization that lobbies for public money for public schools, said in a statement.
This year, the state received 5,500 applications for the voucher program. Most chose to attend a religious school.
While private schools are not required to give the same state exams as the public school system, they do need to administer a national exam at the close of the school year and report the results.
The first round of funding was set to be released last week, but when the judge's ruling came through, the process came to a halt.
Prior to the ruling, 1,879 applicants had been accepted. Those students now need to find another way to make payments, or they will have to return to public schools or find another option.
The Opportunity Scholarships section has been removed from the NC State Education Assistance Authority's website.