News: CJ Exclusives

Opportunity Scholarship Review Reaches Supreme Court

Hearing next week will affect more than 2,000 students

Public schools work for Delicia Hare’s 14-year-old son, but not so well for her 8-year-old son Christian Houston.

Hare uses the $4,200 voucher she gets from the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program to offset some of the costs of sending Christian to Raleigh Christian Academy. She homeschooled Christian from pre-kindergarten through first grade. But then Christian, who Hare called “a very social child,” wanted to go to a more formal school so he could have classroom friends.

“I went ahead and enrolled him in public schools,” Hare said, hoping he would do well there. “For him, it just didn’t click.”

Hare had used the A Beka program to homeschool Christian, a curriculum used by many home-school parents and private schools. When her son got to public school, he didn’t do as well, she said.

“He wasn’t as confident about himself in the public school,” Hare said. “His grades were reflecting that.” So when the voucher program became available, she enrolled him at Raleigh Christian Academy.

Christian was a C student at the public school last year, she said. “Now he gets all A’s and one B, and it’s a B-plus,” Hare said.

Whether Hare’s son and about 1,200 other children in North Carolina can continue to use vouchers from the Opportunity Scholarship Program will come before the N.C. Supreme Court in the coming days. The state’s highest court is scheduled to hear an appeal of a lower court’s ruling that the Opportunity Scholarship Program violates the N.C. Constitution. The hearing is slated for Feb. 24.

Last August, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the Opportunity Scholarship Program violated a number of the provisions of the N.C. Constitution. He said that providing taxpayer money for the vouchers without curriculum or teacher certification requirements “does not accomplish a public purpose.”

He also said the program ran afoul of the state’s landmark Leandro decision, which required the state to provide every child with the opportunity to have a “sound, basic education.”

Representatives from two plaintiff groups who brought the lawsuits, the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association, did not respond to requests for comment.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, NCAE President Rodney Ellis said, “Vouchers for private schools are an affront to a state that has a long and cherished history of public education. … Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools — and on the constitution of our state.”

Mike Ward, a former state superintendent and a plaintiff in the NCAE lawsuit, said, “Vouchers are not a solution to the problems in our schools. The answer is to strengthen our schools, not to strip them of more resources.”

Ward also said that the voucher system “puts taxpayers in the position of funding private education for the few and I think that’s a misuse of tax dollars. That’s not what taxpayers want.

Supporters of the voucher program appealed Hobgood’s decision. Last fall, the N.C. Supreme Court decided to accelerate the appeal, allowing it to bypass the N.C. Court of Appeals and go directly to the state’s highest court. It also decided to allow parents to begin the process of applying for opportunity scholarships for the 2015-16 school year to begin, pending a final decision by the Supreme Court.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which supports the voucher and other school choice programs, said the program is popular among lower income families in North Carolina.

“The tenacity, the determination of families fighting for their children’s future is undeniable,” Allison said.

Allison said more than 1,400 new applications for vouchers have been filed for the next school year, in addition to 700 renewal applications.

Hare said that if the Opportunity Scholarship Program is discontinued, she no longer could afford to send her son to Raleigh Christian Academy.

“I think it would be very discouraging for these children who have started,” Hare said. “I think about Christian and having to tell him he can’t continue. I think this would be a travesty that would be hard on him.”

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