RALEIGH The battle over private school vouchers in North Carolina is headed to court.
On Wednesday, 25 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court, calling the state’s voucher program an unconstitutional assault on public education. The diverse group includes parents, teachers, clergy and well-known names such as Mike Ward, former state schools superintendent, and Judy Chambers, the daughter of the late civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers.
Sponsored by the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center, a left-leaning advocacy group, the lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop the tuition grants before they start in 2014.
At issue are the “Opportunity Scholarships” passed into law this year by the legislature, which will provide $4,200 in taxpayer dollars for low-income students to attend private schools starting next fall. The General Assembly appropriated $10 million for the scholarships in 2014-15. Supporters argue that the program provides school choice to poor families whose children are stuck in low performing public schools.
But the lawsuit’s plaintiffs say the law is a broad assault on the state’s public schools and a violation of fundamental provisions of the state constitution.
“Vouchers are bad public policy,” said Ward, who was superintendent of public instruction from 1997 to 2004. “They tear away millions of dollars that are badly needed by the public schools.”
Flanked by dozens of red-clad public school teachers and supporters, Ward said students don’t perform better in states with vouchers. And, he said, taxpayers don’t want to foot the bill for students in private schools, which don’t have performance standards and are not held accountable to the public.
“Private schools don’t provide a report card of their results to the public,” Ward said. “Private schools don’t account to taxpayers for who they serve, for who they underserve and for who they refuse to serve. They don’t account to taxpayers, and so the community can’t judge whether its tax dollars are being used well.”
In recent months, public school advocates have marched on the legislature to protest cuts in classrooms and North Carolina’s dismal rankings in per pupil spending and teacher pay. The teachers group has threatened to sue the state over the legislature’s move to end the teacher tenure system.
Now, Wednesday’s action will thrust the heated legislative debate on vouchers into a possibly lengthy legal fight. The lawsuit comes as a school choice group is marketing the program and seeking applicants for the Feb. 1 deadline.
Senate Leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg Republican, issued a joint statement Wednesday criticizing the lawsuit. They called the sponsors “liberal groups” who want to keep students in failing schools.
“Not only are these left-wing interest groups fighting every attempt to improve public education, they now want to trap underprivileged and disabled children in low-performing schools where they will continue to fall behind their peers,” the statement said. “Their shameful and defeatist mission will only hurt these students and our state.”
‘Unacceptable status quo’
Darrell Allison, president of pro-voucher Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said the constitution demands an adequate education for all students. He pointed out that recent test scores released by the public schools show that nearly 70 percent of low-income students failed to meet proficiency standards.
“This lawsuit is nothing more than a desperate attempt by opponents of parent choice to cling to an unacceptable status quo for low income students to stay in schools that are simply not working for them,” Allison said in a statement.
“Can anyone justifiably argue that real alternatives are not desperately needed for our poorest of children,” Allison said, “where only 29 percent of them are at grade level?”
Opponents of vouchers warn that the program won’t stop with low-income children and will in the future siphon more money from public education for students already enrolled in private schools.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Indiana created the nation’s first such statewide program for low-income students and its Supreme Court upheld a challenge based on public money going to religious institutions.
Burton Craige, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said similar lawsuits against voucher programs have been successful in some states and unsuccessful in others. But, he said, the language in North Carolina’s constitution is clear that public funds “are to be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
The word “exclusively” is very unusual in a state constitution, Craige said. “We’re going to ask [the court] to declare that ‘exclusively’ means exclusively.”
Craige said the bottom line is that taxpayer funds are being redirected into private schools in violation of the constitution.
“We have no problem with private schools,” Craige said. “We have no problem with home schools. Wonderful. We have a vibrant system of home schools in North Carolina. That’s terrific. But we don’t ask taxpayers to fund it.”
He pointed out that in private schools there are no curriculum requirements and no rules about teachers being certified or undergoing criminal background checks.
‘This is wrong’
Alice Hart, a 36-year retired teacher, principal and administrator in the Buncombe County schools, volunteers in a third-grade classroom in her grandson’s elementary school to help make up for gaps in public school funding.
She said she used to be proud of North Carolina’s record on public education.
“Everywhere I went people came to me and sought me out and said, ‘You’re from North Carolina. Tell us how you did it,’” she said.
Then, bit by bit, public schools eroded, she said, and she described her “despair, disappointment, disbelief” when she heard about the program that will spend public money on private schools.
“Public schools in this nation, of this state are the lifeblood of a democracy,” she said. “The citizens of this state have a moral imperative to fund our schools, to support our teachers, to keep our children at the center of everything we do.”
Now, Hart said, she’s proud to be the lead plaintiff in the anti-voucher lawsuit. “This is wrong and we must defeat it.”
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