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Politics
An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

NC Supreme Court Hears Arguments Over Taxpayer Funds Flowing To Private Schools

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North Carolina state government has paid about $4 million in private school tuition this year. It’s part of the Opportunity Scholarship program, which has paid up to $4,200 to mostly religious schools on behalf of 1,200 low-income students.

The future of this program is uncertain because of legal challenges that were heard Tuesday at the state Supreme Court.

Destiny Grier is the type of student state lawmakers had in mind when they passed the private school voucher program.

"I’m 9 years old, and I go to Northside Christian Academy," she said in an interview.

That’s a private school in Charlotte.  Her aunt, Gwen Wallace, felt she wasn’t getting what she needed at her neighborhood school, Hidden Valley Elementary.

"I just wanted her to have a good education," she said. "I knew being in the public schools, the class sizes are so big and they don’t have the teacher assistants anymore and a lot of the children don’t get the individual instruction that they need." 

The voucher program was Destiny’s way out of Hidden Valley Elementary. It’s not a free ride. Wallace chips in a couple thousand dollars on top of what the state pays Northside Christian. They don’t know if she’ll be able to attend the school next year. 

The state supreme court heard arguments Tuesday in two challenges to the program brought by a long list of plaintiffs. They were organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association. Lawyer Burton Craige told justices the vouchers clearly violate the state constitution. 

"Any money that is going to be sent for the purchase of education, meaning K-12 education, must be used exclusively to support the free public schools," he said.

A lower court agreed with that argument last August and found the scholarships "siphoned money from the public schools in favor of private schools." But an appeals court allowed the program to begin while the legal battle continues.

Assistant Attorney General Lauren Clemmons told justices the program is in line with the constitution.

"The uniform system must be established and funded, but the language does not exclude a program such as this one," she said.

Even if that were the case, Craige argued the state’s voucher program still violates the constitution because there’s no way to tell whether it serves a public purpose.

"When taxpayer funds are flowing into those schools, the state has an affirmative obligation to see that those funds are actually educating children," he said.

Craige said unlike other states, North Carolina does little to ensure private schools receiving voucher money have good teachers and a sound curriculum to prepare students to be productive members of society.  

Justice Paul Newby interrupted him.

"What about the testing at the end of the year?" Newby asked. "What about the reporting?"

Newby pointed out private schools participating in the program do have to send parents and the state students’ scores on standardized tests, and he said many private school students go onto college. 

"Why isn’t that one way to assess the public purpose?" he asked.

"Well, North Carolina has many fine private schools," Craige replied, "but the problem with this legislation is that these funds flow to all private schools regardless of quality." 

Lawyer Richard Komer said that argument doesn’t give parents much credit.  He’s with The Institute for Justice, a national group pushing for vouchers. 

"All of the private schools we assume operate under the assumption that parents know what’s best for their children and will seek an adequate, decent education for their children," he said.

Most private schools receiving voucher money in North Carolina are religious schools. Stephen Martin is an attorney representing the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem. He said the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that flies with a ruling in 2002 regarding vouchers in Ohio. 

"Ninety-six percent of the funds ended up being used by parents at parochial schools, even that didn’t create an establishment clause problem," he said.

Justice Robin Hudson stopped him. 

"But didn’t the program there require that participating private schools not discriminate on the basis of race or religion or ethnic background?" she asked.

There’s no such requirement in North Carolina’s voucher program to prevent private schools from denying children admission based on religion. Lawyers arguing against the vouchers said there are schools that do that.

The application deadline for next year’s round of opportunity scholarships is this Sunday.  The court could rule in a matter of weeks or months.