Politics and the high court

The Observer editorial board

The legislature voted 4-3 along party lines Thursday to approve taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.

Oh wait, that wasn’t the legislature. That was the N.C. Supreme Court. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the two.

It was probably never the case that judges and justices were wholly independent arbiters of the law, above the fray of partisan politics. But with the rise of outside special interest groups spending millions to elect their favored candidates – and the threat of being targeted for defeat by those interests next time around – the judiciary’s politicization has been amplified in recent years.

The court’s four Republicans voted to uphold the Republican-drawn redistricting lines in December (the U.S. Supreme Court later ordered them to reconsider that decision). And on Thursday, the court’s four Republicans backed the controversial vouchers program while the three Democrats dissented.

This, sadly, was predictable. Whatever your party and whatever you think of vouchers, you should feel uneasy if North Carolina’s Supreme Court is becoming a two-headed political animal. We already have a 170-member legislature sharply divided along partisan lines. We don’t need another. We need a high court independent of partisan pressure, serious about fulfilling its role in our system of checks and balances.

The voucher program is bad public policy for North Carolina regardless of whether the court’s legal reasoning was sound. The state’s public schools are already underfunded, with hard-working but underpaid teachers, outdated buildings and large class sizes. The budget that legislators are currently negotiating threatens to eliminate thousands of teacher assistant positions. Dedicating more than $17 million for vouchers to private schools will only starve the public schools more, and you can be sure the amount will only grow in coming years. Home-schooling and private schools are a better option for many children, but taxpayer money needs to be spent on public schools.

From a constitutional standpoint, the majority’s logic was peculiar.

The state Constitution requires that state funds for public education be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.” Even more important, as Justice Robin Hudson articulated in her dissent, the state’s Opportunity Scholarships legislation requires no accountability from the private schools that receive the public money. The court’s majority even acknowledges that while public schools have to show they are offering a sound basic education, private schools do not.

“The main constitutional flaw in this program,” Hudson wrote, “is that it provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools’ contribution to public purposes; such a huge omission is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear.”