Judge allows lawsuit challenging private school grants
RALEIGH — A North Carolina judge on Monday refused to dismiss lawsuits challenging a new law that would allow taxpayer money to be used for tuition at private or religious schools.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood scheduled another hearing for Friday on whether to block plans to begin awarding annual grants of up to $4,200 next month, a move sought by plaintiffs in two lawsuits.
The grants, which the law calls "opportunity scholarships," would be available for the academic year starting in August for families meeting income requirements that have been capped slightly above the level set for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program.
The North Carolina Association of Educators, taxpayers and the group representing the state's 115 school boards filed separate lawsuits arguing the grants, which they refer to as vouchers, will fund a separate education system. Lawyers for the teachers' association and the North Carolina School Boards Association argued the grants will violate the state constitution, which states that taxpayer funding for schools should be used exclusively for running "a uniform system of free public schools."
"If the government has the power to reach down to its citizens and extract money from it in the form of taxation, then the purpose of that taxation and the use of that money has to be for a public purpose," said Robert Orr, an attorney representing the school boards association.
The grants would give parents more choices about where to educate their children, argued attorneys for the state and the libertarian Institute for Justice. The Arlington, Va. -based legal defense group is representing two parents eager to have their children participate in the program.
One of the parents is Gennell Curry, 40, of Creedmore. The grants would allow her to move her 16- and 14-year-old sons back to Christian Faith Center Academy in Creedmore, which the boys attended until a change in family finances forced them back into public schools, she said.
"We are also taxpayers and we would like to have a choice as to where our tax money goes," Curry said.
The state constitution doesn't prevent lawmakers from choosing to expand education options beyond public schools, state attorney Lauren Clemmons told Hobgood.
Supporters say besides expanding school choices, the grants save money because private school tuition is typically less than the per-pupil cost at public schools. At an average $8,400 cost to educate a student in public schools, state- budget writers last year estimated $11.8 million in savings resulting from lower school enrollment.
Opponents argue that using grants for private school tuition undercuts struggling public schools, and they criticized legislators for putting few limits on how the money could be used.
North Carolina's nearly 700 private schools, with an enrollment of about 95,000, are free to select students based on sex, religion, sexual orientation or other factors, said Edwin Speas, an attorney representing the school boards association. In addition, he said, private school teachers are not required to hold state licenses or to have any credentials, degrees or experience — in either education or the subjects they teach.
Private schools also face no penalty if children aren't learning, Speas said. The law requires private schools accepting the grants to give parents an annual written explanation of a student's progress, including scores on standardized achievement tests.
"Sending taxpayer funds to unaccountable private schools cannot be a public purpose," Speas said. "With no accountability standards, the legislature could throw millions of dollars down a black hole so long as the hole is marked 'education.'"