Court’s move could reopen school vouchers

May. 16, 2014 @ 10:00 AM

North Carolina’s highest court lifted a lower court’s hold on the rollout of a new state program that would subsidize private school tuition for low-income students.

The one-sentence order from the state Supreme Court on Wednesday issues a stay on the preliminary injunction from Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood, whose ruling in February blocked the program until its constitutionality was settled in court.

With only a handful of private schools in the county, Vance school board member Ed Wilson said the program would likely have little impact on families in this area.

“I don’t know how many people here have already applied for vouchers, but I don’t think it will affect us much,” he said.

He said families who would qualify for the scholarships might be deterred by the additional costs that come with private school.

“The people who would get vouchers would also need transportation and other things that are not available for free at private schools,” Wilson said.

The Opportunity Scholarship program, passed by the General Assembly in July, was included in the state’s budget bill and grants scholarships up to $4,200 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 N.C. Association of Educators and N.C. School Boards Association filed parallel lawsuits last year, challenging the constitutionality of the Scholarship Opportunity program.

The lawsuit claims it is unconstitutional for the state to use taxpayers’ money to fund a student’s private school education.

The injunction would have halted scholarship grants from being made during 2014-2015 academic year.

The legislation establishing the program allocates $40 million for the 2014-2015 fiscal year and $50 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

Vance County Schools passed a resolution in January to join the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state.

Alice Hart, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the program would hurt public schools.

“I was disheartened and extraordinarily disappointed because this program releases badly needed funding for public schools,” she said of her reaction to the Supreme Court’s order. “My hope is the plan will be to seek a permanent injunction to stop the voucher program.”

Hart, who lives in Buncombe County, has worked for more than 36 years in public schools in the state as a teacher, principal and administrator. She was the 1985 North Carolina Principal of the Year and an associate superintendent of Asheville City Schools.

She said the program harms public education by diverting state money to private schools, which would not be held to the same standards and regulations as public schools.

“There is no guarantee that the students who receive the vouchers will receive a quality education,” she said. “This is an unregulated expenditure of taxpayer dollars at the expense of public school system.”

But President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina Darrell Allison said just because private schools offer a different model, doesn’t mean they are not effective.

“I’m of the belief that no one school has the best way to educate someone,” he said. “If we believe that each child is unique, then we have to work as adults to meet them when they are.”

He said the Opportunity Scholarship program offers a chance for low-income families in Vance County to have educational options.

“The more quality options there are, the better the chances are that one of the options will work for that unique child,” he said.

Though private schools will not be required to report the same testing data as traditional public schools, Allison said the state will still have a sense of how students are faring.

The legislation states private schools who enroll scholarship students must administer, at least once each school year, a nationally standardized test or other nationally standardized equivalent measurement for students enrolled in grades three and higher. The standardized test must measure achievement in the areas of English grammar, reading, spelling and mathematics.

The test performance data must be submitted to the State Education Assistance Authority each year, according to the law.

A private school enrolling more than 25 students with scholarships must report aggregate standardized testing data, which would be publicly available as long as it does not contain personally identifiable student data.

“Low-income children are zoned to district schools that do not always provide a safe, quality education,” Allison said. “We have to do something.”

 

 

Contact the writer at smansur@hendersondispatch.com.