In a packed courtroom this morning, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood ruled that challenges to the state’s school voucher program, dubbed the “Opportunity Scholarship Program,” could move forward toward trial.
The program, which was adopted as part of the budget bill signed into law by the governor in July, allows income-eligible families to apply for up to $4200 in tuition funds for use at private schools.
A group of 25 educators and state taxpayers fired the opening salvo in December when they filed suit, contending that the use of taxpayer money for private schools violated provisions of the state constitution requiring that public dollars be used exclusively for a system of free public schools. Four individuals and the North Carolina School Boards Association filed a second suit days later making similar allegations. Since then more than 70 county boards of education have signed on to that lawsuit.
Today, attorneys for the state as well as for the nonprofit Institute for Justice — a Washington, D.C. – based school choice organization which Hobgood allowed to join the lawsuits today on behalf of applicants to the program — tried to convince the court that the complaints lacked merit and should be dismissed.
Attorney Lauren Clemmons, arguing for the state, said that the General Assembly met its obligation to spend public funds for public purposes in enacting the program because the public purpose was “education” in the broadest sense of the word, not just public education.
The program provides scholarship funds to parents for the education of their children in private schools, she told Judge Hobgood.
Clemmons added that voucher money didn’t necessarily come from funds specifically earmarked for public education. She led the court through the circuitous route through which voucher funds traveled — from the total education budget through the UNC system to parents and ultimately private schools — an exercise that left many scratching their heads and wondering whether, by undertaking so many budgetary maneuvers, the General Assembly wasn’t really just trying to hide the ball.
“A budgetary shell game does not neuter the constitution,” attorney Burton Craige said when the plaintiffs’ counsel got their turn to address the court.
And the state constitution could not be more clear, he added, in stating that state revenue for the purposes of public education be used “exclusively” for public schools.
“We’re asking the court to declare that “exclusively” means “exclusively,” Craige told Hobgood.
After hearing more than two hours of argument, Hobgood ruled from the bench that the challengers had stated their claims sufficiently enough to allow them to move forward and denied the state’s request to dismiss the complaints.
The next step in the proceedings comes quickly, as the court will hear argument on Friday regarding requests by those challenging the vouchers to delay implementation of the program until the court rules on its constitutionality.
Should the court deny those requests, the state can begin vetting more than 4,000 applicants for income eligibility and then conduct a lottery to determine who will receive funds for the coming school year — estimated to be close to 2400 students.