News: CJ Exclusives

Lawsuit Challenges Opportunity Scholarship Program

Teacher union, liberal activists say program violates state constitution

The state’s largest teachers organization along with the left-of-center N.C. Justice Center have filed a lawsuit challenging the private school voucher program passed by the 2013 General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Supporters of North Carolina’s recently enacted “opportunity scholarships” counter that the new program, awarding low-income parents tax-funded scholarships of up to $4,200 for their children to attend private schools, will pass constitutional muster.

Darrell Allison, president of the nonprofit Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said the opportunity scholarships provide funding for parents, not schools. “It is the parent who elects to make this decision about how to best educate their child. It’s parent-driven.”

“I do not want my tax dollars paying for children to attend private schools,” said Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, during a Wednesday press conference at the association’s Raleigh headquarters.

Burton Craige, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, argued that the voucher program violated the N.C. Constitution, emphasizing that the document allows public education funds to be used only for public schools.

“Funds for public education are to be ‘used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools,’” Craige said. “We’re going to ask them to declare that exclusively means exclusively.”

Ellis is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward and 23 other parents, educators, and taxpayers. The lead plaintiff is Alice Hart, a retired assistant superintendent of the Buncombe County Schools and the 1985 North Carolina principal of the year.

“Vouchers are bad public policy,” Ward said. “They tear away millions of dollars that are badly needed by the public schools.”

Ward continued, “Students don’t do better under a system of vouchers.”

Allison said that in apples-to-apples comparisons, children taking advantage of direct aid such as opportunity scholarships have better outcomes.

“Empirical studies show that the kids who take the scholarship do better,” Allison said. “We think we will begin to see that here in North Carolina.”

Allison said voucher opponents were displaying a “sky is falling” mentality. “Hyperbole has its place, but it’s not here,” he said.

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, a chief architect of the state’s voucher program, said proponents were careful in crafting the state’s opportunity scholarship program.

Stam noted that in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld a challenge to Cleveland’s voucher program. “The way I understand the Supreme Court decision, as long as parents have a reasonable choice of schools, the opponents are going to lose,” Stam said.

Melinda Lawrence, executive director of the N.C. Justice Center, said the voucher law would provide tax money for private schools that are unregulated and don’t have requirements for teacher certification or curriculum.

Stam likened the public school vouchers to need-based scholarships that the General Assembly offers to students at the state’s private colleges and universities.

“They all have their own admissions standards,” Stam said.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Wake County Superior Court. It lists as defendants the State of North Carolina and the North Carolina State Educational Assistance Authority, which is charged with administering the voucher program.

Craige noted that similar lawsuits in other states have gone both ways. “It all depends on the language of the state constitution,” Craige said.

The lawsuit seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against the voucher law, and it seeks to have the voucher law declared unconstitutional. It also seeks to have plaintiffs awarded attorneys fees.

Allison said the voucher program is aimed at helping children in lower-income families whose needs aren’t being met in traditional public school settings.

“We are just trying to create a possible viable option, where many of these low income families don’t have one,” Allison said. “If you want to shut down this alternative, then my argument is what is your alternative? The status quo is not acceptable.”

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