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Voucher lawsuits needed to proceed

North Carolina’s wrongheaded voucher program is rightly headed to court, despite the state’s lawyers push on Monday to get lawsuits against the program dismissed. N.C. lawmakers should never have passed this bad law that diverts public funds to private schools. The plaintiffs make a strong case that the legislation is unconstitutional. We hope Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood’s refusal to dismiss the lawsuits will be the start of derailing this misuse of taxpayer dollars.

Two lawsuits were filed in December against the program that lawmakers dubbed “Opportunity Scholarships.” The North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina Justice Center filed suit on behalf of more than two dozen N.C. residents. The N.C. School Boards Association filed a similar but separate suit. They are being heard together.

As of last week, more than 1,400 families had submitted applications for 2,100 scholarships, which will be $4,200 per child. We hope Judge Hobgood on Friday will stay the program until the courts decide the matter.

The lawsuits correctly point out that this program doesn’t just transfer millions of tax dollars to private entities. The public money would unwisely support private programs that aren’t subject to the rigorous oversight of public schools. One example? Only the head of the school is required to have a criminal background check for the school to qualify for voucher funds. No teacher has to be screened.

And though the voucher-receiving schools must test students, lawmakers set no minimums for scores, grade point averages or graduation rates. The program – for the first year – is only available to students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, but schools aren’t required to provide lunch. The schools also may discriminate based on race, religion and sexual orientation.

These are not environments for which taxpayer dollars should be used.

Crucially, the N.C. Constitution seems to disallow this private use of public monies. Article IX, Section 6 says all monies for the purposes of public education “shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

“The North Carolina Constitution could not be more explicit,” said the Justice Center’s Melinda Lawrence,. “Public monies are to be used only for free public schools. Period.”

Sadly, this is not the first time N.C. lawmakers have tried to get around the state constitution regarding public education. The state Supreme Court ruled in both 1997 and 2004 that North Carolina had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to educate its at-risk children, and ordered remedies. One remedy became the state’s nationally praised preschool program. But in 2011, lawmakers tried to limit eligibility for the program to save money. They backed down after Superior Court Judge Howard Manning said the state was obligated to continue making the program available to all at-risk N.C. children.

Voucher proponents argue that the scholarships are being funded from general funds not designated public education money, and thus constitutional. We disagree. They also argue that the program gives parents options when they feel the public schools are failing their children. But studies show very mixed results for low-income school voucher programs.

Lawmakers would have done better by adequately funding the public schools, and paying teachers what they deserve, rather than wasting dollars on this misguided, likely unconstitutional, endeavor. They still have time to do so.

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