News: CJ Exclusives

Appeals Court Releases Voucher Money For Low-Income Students

Funding for nearly 2,000 students OK'd until appeals end

The N.C. Court of Appeals will allow nearly 1,900 students to get vouchers for the current school year while a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the fledgling Opportunity Scholarships is on appeal.

The appeals court on Friday issued an order putting on hold a separate ruling by Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood halting all disbursements of funds for the program after he declared the Opportunity Scholarships program unconstitutional.

The appeals court’s order releases scholarship funding for 1,878 applicants who accepted Opportunity Scholarships as of Aug. 21. That means those students will be allowed to receive up to $4,200 each in vouchers from the state to pay toward their tuition at a private school.

The rest of Hobgood’s order on the distribution of any other funds remains in effect, the appeals court order says.

Hobgood made his ruling last month as many parents were preparing to send their children to school. Some private schools already had started their academic year when the order came out. Despite the order, a number of parents decided to send their children anyway, believing that the appellate courts eventually would free up the money for vouchers.

In a statement, Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said:

“Today’s historic decision allows nearly 2,000 students already enrolled in the Opportunity Scholarship Program to continue to attend their new schools with confidence and security for this school year. Throughout this challenging process, we’ve heard from parents and school leaders about the significant academic progress children can make when they are able to learn in the environment that’s best for them. We appreciate their unwavering commitment while the case made its way through the courts.

“Furthermore, we are grateful for the tenacity of the legal teams representing the General Assembly, as well as our partners at the Institute for Justice. Together they stood up for the intervening parents in this case and the thousands of families who desired this option. Of course, the fight is not over. We will continue to push for an expedited answer on the merits of the case, which we believe will ultimately be upheld as constitutional,” Allison said.

The General Assembly approved the Opportunity Scholarships program in 2013, and Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law.

The scholarships are available to children from lower income families who attended public schools the previous year to offset some of the costs of enrolling in a private school in North Carolina.

After the program became law, the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association filed lawsuits challenging the program’s constitutionality. The Institute for Justice, based in Arlington, Va., a longtime school choice advocate, entered the case on behalf of four parents hoping to use Opportunity Scholarships to send their children to private schools.

In an email, Institute for Justice attorney Renée Flaherty said, “We are encouraged that the Court of Appeals will not allow the program to be derailed and children to be pulled from schools while the appeals proceed. The parents and the legislative officers representing the General Assembly plan to pursue their appeals as quickly as possible so that these cases can proceed to their inevitable conclusion: victory for the parents and students of North Carolina.

“The decision lifts a huge burden of uncertainty off the shoulders of hundreds of North Carolina families and private schools. Although today’s decision isn’t the final word on the program, it bodes well,” she said.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.