February 21, 2014

Judge puts N.C. school voucher program on hold

The state has received nearly 5,000 applications for vouchers, but with the legal freeze, no money can be promised.

The legislature’s plan to give parents taxpayer money to send their children to private schools suffered a setback Friday when a Superior Court judge granted opponents’ request to suspend the program.

Lawyers representing taxpayers, the N.C. School Boards Association and local school boards argued that the state constitution prohibits using public money to pay private K-12 school tuition. Lawyers representing the state and two parents who want to use the “opportunity scholarships” said opponents were making policy, not constitutional, arguments.

Dick Komer, the lawyer from the Institute for Justice, a Libertarian law firm representing the parents, said he would appeal Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood’s decision.

The state has received nearly 5,000 applications for vouchers, but with the legal freeze, no money can be promised. Arguments on Friday centered on what the state constitution allows and whether the legislature improperly took money away from public schools to give to private schools.

As of Tuesday, four counties had more than 500 applicants. Mecklenburg had 750, and Wake had 670, according to an affidavit given by the director of grants in the state Education Assistance Authority, the state office accepting voucher applications.

More than half the applicants were from Mecklenburg, Wake, Cumberland or Guilford counties. Eighty-nine counties had at least one applicant; 11 counties had none. Nearly three-quarters of the applications were for minority students.

Most parents have identified the private schools they want their children to attend, and the top choices were religious schools. The Greensboro Islamic Academy was identified in 158 applications. Victory Christian Center School in Charlotte was the choice for 87 applicants and Al-Iman School in Raleigh was identified in 77 applications.

Opponents used information from the schools’ websites to argue that vouchers would send money to schools that discriminate based on religion or disability.

For example, Raleigh Christian Academy, a part of Beacon Baptist Church, requires parents and students sign a contract saying they are in 100 percent agreement with its doctrinal positions.

“We are not a church school for those in cults, i.e. Mormons, Jehovah Witness, Christian Science, Unification Church, Zen Buddhism, Unitarianism, and United Pentecostal,” the school application says.

Burton Craige, a lawyer for the taxpayers, pointed to restrictions Greensboro Islamic Academy put on admission of children with emotional or severe learning disabilities. The school’s application says it does not have programs available to meet those students’ needs.

If students who are admitted and are later found to have emotional, behavioral or severe learning disabilities they may be asked to leave, according to the application.

“If a student stays until November and is expelled, who will be responsible for picking up the pieces?” Craige asked. The student would go back to a Guilford County school, he said, but the private school would be able to keep the voucher check.

Six private schools have registered to participate in the program. Schools have until May 1 to register or tell the authority they won’t participate in the first year. The state has more than 700 private schools.

Special Deputy Attorney General Lauren Clemmons, who is defending the state in the lawsuits, said it’s unlikely that parents who object to a school’s religious doctrine would seek to send their children there. And schools have the right of freedom of association, she said.

“What I’m hearing from the plaintiffs is they don’t like people asserting their First Amendment rights,” Clemmons said.

Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican and supporter of the program, said the legislature could easily address the claims that the program violates the state constitution when it passes a public school budget this year. The legislature returns to work in May, and Stam said the program could still be in place for students in time for the fall semester.

The budget set aside $10 million for the program, enough to give about 2,400 students who leave public school up to $4,200 each to pay tuition at a private school beginning this fall.

The state Education Assistance Authority reported receiving 4,719 applications as of Friday morning, although it appeared that about 18 percent do not meet eligibility requirements because the children are not now enrolled in public schools.

The authority had planned to hold a lottery for applicants later this month, but with the program on hold that cannot go forward, said Robert Orr, a former state Supreme Court Justice and one of the lawyers representing the school boards association. In the first year, vouchers were to be available to children from families whose incomes qualified them for free or reduced school lunches.

“The judge found that failure to grant the injunction could cause irreparable harm. Judge Hobgood further found that a lawsuit filed by the Justice Center and allied groups was likely to succeed on its merits, supporting the need for an injunction halting the program,” the N.C. Justice Center said in a statement. The Justice Center and N.C. Association of Educators are supporting the taxpayers’ lawsuit.

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a major supporter of the voucher program, said the decision denies low-income parents the chance to pick their children’s schools.

“While we respect the court’s decision, we are deeply disappointed on behalf of the thousands of working-class families who desired this educational option,” organization President Darrell Allison said in a statement. “These low-income families qualified for this program; these low-income families applied for this program; but these low-income families were wrongfully denied this program.”

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