News: CJ Exclusives

Justices Allow Opportunity Scholarships To Proceed

Supreme Court says state can conduct lottery for low-income students to receive vouchers

RALEIGH – The N.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted a lower court’s order that had blocked implementation of the state’s new voucher law helping children from lower-income families to attend private schools.

The ruling means that the N.C. Educational Assistance Authority can move ahead with a lottery to see which children will be awarded the vouchers, called Opportunity Scholarships, for the academic year beginning this fall, according to attorneys involved in the case. The order will be in effect until the appeals process concludes, or until Judge Robert Hobgood, who issued the initial injunction, issues a final judgment on the merits of the case at the trial level.

Last year, the General Assembly enacted a law allowing vouchers to provide up to $4,200 in scholarships for children from lower-income families to offset the cost of attending private schools. The law limited the scholarships to 2,400 students in its first year. Since about 4,500 students applied, a lottery would be needed to determine which students would actually be awarded the scholarships.

Hobgood issued his preliminary injunction blocking the program in February. The N.C. Court of Appeals refused to overturn Hobgood’s order, setting the stage for Wednesday’s Supreme Court action.

The Institute for Justice, the libertarian public-interest law firm representing two parents who have pushed to overturn Hobgood’s order, reacted positively to the Supreme Court’s decision.

“In lifting the injunction, the N.C. Supreme Court has lifted a cloud over the program, and given hope to the thousands of families who have already applied for a scholarship,” said Dick Komer, senior attorney for the institute. “Although today’s decision isn’t the final word on the program, it bodes well for full vindication at the state’s highest court. More importantly, it bodes well for the families whose only wish is to find the best education for their children.”

Renee Flaherty, another Institute for Justice attorney working on the case, added, “The N.C. Supreme Court has sent the Court of Appeals a strong and unmistakable signal: This program should be allowed to go on.”

Flaherty said Hobgood misread the text of the N.C. Constitution when he issued the injunction. Flaherty said it “in no way prohibits the creation of innovative programs, such as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, that give our poorest families additional educational options.”

The N.C. School Boards Association, one of the plaintiffs seeking to block implementation of the voucher program, did not agree with the justices’ reasoning.

“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, said Edwin Dunlap Jr., executive director of the school boards association. “The prudent thing would have been to answer these important constitutional questions before the state started spending public money on private schools.”

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, lauded the ruling.

“Today’s historic decision vindicates the over 4,500 parents who applied for their child to receive and Opportunity Scholarship and puts parents back in the driver’s seat and their child’s education,” Allison said. “Additionally, this ruling provides immediate relief to low-income and working-class families who applied for this program from across the state and also demonstrates parents [who joined the lawsuit] have a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits.”

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, added his support.

“The Supreme Court made the right decision today, and I am pleased that thousands of low-income children across North Carolina will have the opportunity to attend a school that best meets their needs in the coming year,” Berger said.

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