News: CJ Exclusives

Parents, Schools Waiting For Court Voucher Ruling

Justices bypassed appeals court but have not issued decision

Parents of students who are relying on Opportunity Scholarship vouchers to offset the cost of private school tuition are facing their second summer in a row of uncertainty.

In August 2014, a few days before most schools were ready to open, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled the Opportunity Scholarships Program, which provides $4,200 a year for children from lower-income families to attend private schools, was unconstitutional.

This summer, that same issue is before the N.C. Supreme Court. Justices heard oral arguments on the issue in February. But the state’s highest court has yet to issue an opinion on the validity of the program.

“Not only am I praying for it to come through, I have my fingers crossed and I’m sitting on the edge of my seat,” said LaChrisha Wilson of Salisbury, whose 8-year-old son Caleb attended North Hills Christian School in Salisbury on an Opportunity Scholarship last year and plans to use the voucher program again this year in the third grade.

Wilson has a younger son, 6-year-old Joshua, who plans to attend the same school. He’ll be in the first grade.

The Supreme Court announced last fall that it would hear the appeal of Hobgood’s ruling. The appeal was fast-tracked to the Supreme Court, bypassing the usual hearing by the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Supporters and opponents of the voucher program hailed the move, saying it would give the justices time to resolve the dispute before parents and schools had to make plans for the 2015-16 school year.

Oral arguments, originally scheduled for mid-February, were postponed a week because of inclement weather. They were held on Feb. 24.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which supports the voucher program, took an optimistic tone and urged parents not to become too anxious.

“What we’re encouraging them to do is really lean on that important virtue, that being patience,” Allison said.

Allison took some measure of solace in the actions the Supreme Court has taken so far. Allison noted that the justices had lifted an order Hobgood issued in May 2014 blocking the application process and also rescinded the August order ending the program. Bypassing the Court of Appeals allowed the application process to begin for students seeking scholarships for the 2015-16 school year, he said.

“I think that the effort they made was to not have chaos,” Allison said.

But he said the state’s top court shouldn’t wait too long.

“To wait until August [for a decision] would be utter chaos,” Allison said. Even if the Supreme Court doesn’t uphold the program, parents will need some time to seek alternatives, such as a charter school or traditional public school, he said.

Parents and children aren’t the only ones feeling the stress of being in limbo. So are the private schools.

Tammi Peters, head of school at Fayetteville Christian School, expects her school to have between 40 and 50 children using vouchers.

“It does put us in a predicament because we have to go ahead and buy our books, assuming that these kids are coming,” Peters said.

Peters said that the school decided in late June that it could wait no longer.

“We are going to have to go ahead and order the books, which will be thousands of dollars we’re investing in,” Peters said. “We’re talking not just a few thousand, but $30,000, $40,000, and $50,000.”

Peters noted that the wait is tough on the children’s parents.

“We feel very badly about the recipients, because it puts them in angst,” Peters said.

Wilson said she is preparing for her children to attend North Hills Christian.

“I have purchased the uniforms for one of the children already,” Wilson said. She said she’s hoping both children can go through the private school learning environment.

Wilson noted that her son Caleb “actually learned cursive writing,” which she said put him ahead of third-graders in many traditional public schools.

Without the Opportunity Scholarships, Wilson said she wasn’t sure that her children would be able to attend private school.

“It would be a lot more stressful for me,” Wilson said. The scholarships allow her to work only one job and attend some of her children’s school activities.

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