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Originally published: 2013-12-16 12:57:17
Last modified: 2013-12-16 12:58:02

Groups sue over NC school voucher law

by Anna Oakes

Twenty-five plaintiffs -- sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center -- filed a lawsuit Dec. 11 in Wake County Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of a school voucher program enacted by the N.C. General Assembly this year.


Established as a provision of the 2013-15 state budget bill, the program provides "opportunity scholarship grants" of up to $4,200 per year to eligible students to attend nonpublic schools, beginning in 2014-15. To be eligible, students must reside in households with incomes no greater than 133 percent of the amount that qualifies for free or reduced lunches.


In a joint statement, NCAE President Rodney Ellis said the voucher system siphons money away from cash-strapped public schools and gives taxpayer dollars to private institutions. N.C. Justice Center Executive Director Melinda Lawrence said the vouchers violate the North Carolina Constitution, which states that state revenues for 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," Lawrence said in the statement. "Public monies are to be used only for free public schools. Period. That is the heart of our legal challenge."


The plaintiffs include former Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward and former Shaw University president John Lucas, as well as parents, teachers, members of the clergy and other community leaders, according to a statement by NCAE.


N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives Thom Tillis issued a joint statement on the lawsuit Dec. 11.


"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 Republican leaders said. "Their shameful and defeatist mission will only hurt these students and our state."


Berger and Tillis said that 16 other states have similar programs.


In the joint NCAE and N.C. Justice Center statement, Ward said that voucher supporters say the program is to help disadvantaged students, but that "their goal is to build a generalized system of vouchers for the middle class and beyond."


But there's no legal basis for a suit based on future intentions, said state Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone, a Republican and co-chairman of Senate committees on Education and Appropriations on Education.


"What might happen in the future is not the law," he said. "That really illustrates that they're not concerned about the law as much as making a political or policy statement.


"I am sure that this is legal and will stand up to legal scrutiny," Soucek said.


Soucek said the voucher program will operate as a pilot plan so that state leaders can evaluate its academic and fiscal effectiveness. At $4,200 per year, the scholarships cost $1,000 less per student than to educate a student in public schools, Soucek said.


"It's smart for us to start slowly. I think our strongest argument is for people of middle or lower income," he said. "I think there is a stronger argument, if it works well, why should it only work well for the very poorest? That's going to be one of the debates."