NC private school vouchers ruled unconstitutional

The fate of more than 200 Charlotte-area students who intended to use state vouchers to attend private school this fall is up in the air after the program was suddenly halted.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled Thursday morning that the state’s plan to give some low-income families up to $4,200 to help pay private school tuition is unconstitutional.

His decision effectively ended, for now, the program that was to help at least 1,300 students across the state, including more than 230 in Mecklenburg County, this school year.

Public school advocates, who accused the program of funneling tax dollars away from public education, hailed the ruling as a victory.

But the ruling also comes as many private schools begin their academic years, sending private schools who had already admitted students under the program scrambling.

“Our first initial reaction was, ‘What in the world are we supposed to do?’ ” said Tony Mangum of Tabernacle Christian School in Monroe. At least 24 students were planning to attend using vouchers when school begins there Sept. 2.

Mangum said the school’s plan is to allow the children to begin school and hope the ruling gets overturned.

“We’re going to just work with the parents and not allow the kids to be disrupted in this process,” he said.

The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office said it plans to appeal.

‘Opportunity Scholarships’

The vouchers, known as “Opportunity Scholarships,” were created by the legislature last year and call for families to get $4,200 each to help pay private school tuition. The state had set aside $10 million for the program, meaning about 2,400 students could receive money. The families must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to qualify, and the student can’t already be in private school.

The program quickly drew a challenge from the N.C. Association of Educators and the left-leaning advocacy group N.C. Justice Center, which sued the state to block it. The N.C. School Boards Association and 71 public school districts also sued.

The court battle had put the voucher program in jeopardy for months. In late July, a Wake County judge declined to put a hold on the program until the lawsuits were resolved, meaning the program was operating roughly as normal until Thursday.

The state received 5,558 applications, including 937 from Mecklenburg County. A lottery was held to determine who would be eligible, and by late last month, more than 1,300 students had accepted the scholarships.

The first wave of money was set to go out Aug. 15. A technical glitch prevented the money from going out as planned, said Elizabeth McDuffie of the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, the organization in charge of operating the voucher program. The authority had requested to release money Thursday, but canceled that after the court ruling.

Private schools and parents will now be notified that they won’t be receiving the money, she said.

As word trickled out, private schools across the state worked to figure out what to do with students they had enrolled with the understanding that they would receive voucher money.

“If we have accepted these students, we will work with them in every way we can,” said Lena Brown of the CFA Academy in Concord, which held its first day of classes Thursday.

Interest groups respond

Hobgood, the Superior Court judge, said that under the North Carolina constitution, the state is required to make sure that its students get a quality education and that the state can’t push that responsibility off on “unregulated private schools.”

“It appears to this court that the General Assembly is seeking to push at-risk students from low-income families into non-public schools in order to avoid the cost of providing them a sound, basic education in public schools,” Hobgood said.

Activist groups on both sides of the issue immediately reacted to the ruling Thursday.

“We are ecstatic,” said Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators. “This was a huge win for every citizen across the state.”

His organization argued that taxpayer money should not be taken away from public education, which Jewell said has already been cut to the bone.

Supporters of the program described the judge’s ruling as politically motivated.

“Today’s ruling by a single trial court judge advances a clear political agenda ahead of the needs of thousands of North Carolina children,” Senate Leader Phil Berger said in a statement. “I hope we will move swiftly to appeal.”

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, called the decision “disheartening” and said he hopes private schools will work with parents and students affected.

“Our hope is that they will allow the child to remain until this is resolved,” he said. “It can be very disruptive.”

The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.