School voucher program opposed by Vance leaders

Jan. 11, 2014 @ 06:07 PM

The Vance County school board will vote on a resolution Monday to join as a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the school voucher program passed by the N.C. General Assembly last session.

House Bill 944, also known as the Scholarship Opportunity Act, establishes a $90 million grant program for low-income students to attend nonpublic, or private, schools.

The law allocates $10 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, $40 for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, and $50 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

Scholarship grants up to $4,200 are awarded to students from households with an income level less than the amount required for the student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.

The program has come under attack from proponents of traditional public schools and prompted the lawsuit, filed in Wake County Superior Court last month.

The N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center have sponsored the 25 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. The plaintiffs include former Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward, former Shaw University president, as well as parents, teachers and clergy.

“I am against the voucher program because it is going to take money and students from the public schools,” said school board member Ruth Hartness. “If parents want to send their students to private schools, they can do so on their own money.”

The resolution for approval by the Vance County Board of Education states that the scholarship program requires the state board of education to reduce funding to each local board of education in an amount equal to the local board’s per pupil allocation for average daily membership multiplied by the number of students who have received vouchers and were enrolled in the local board’s schools during the prior semester.

It also states that reducing funding to public schools to fund a private school scholarship program will significantly impair the local board’s ability to ensure that students have the opportunity to receive a sound basic education, as required by the state constitution.

The N.C. School Board Association’s Legal Assistance Fund will cover the litigation costs associated with the lawsuit, according to the resolution.

School board member Ed Wilson said he believes the money used for the program is intended for public schools.

“They are using that money to get kids out of public schools and I think it’s the wrong way to use public funds,” Wilson said.

Greg Michalek said the implementation of the program is still moving forward, despite the lawsuit. Michalek is the communications director for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a statewide organization that supports greater educational options through parental school choice.

“If parents don’t believe the school their child is in now meets the child’s needs, they have other choices,” Michalek said. “So much of public education is determined by where students live. Low-income families deserve choice for their children, too.”

Contact the writer at smansur@hendersondispatch.com.