*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story omitted the news that Judge Hobgood also ruled in favor of allowing Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger to intervene in the case and defend the school voucher program.
Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood ruled Wednesday that the state can begin to disburse school voucher funds in advance of a final court ruling that will determine whether or not the program is constitutional.
The funds for school vouchers, formally known as the Opportunity Scholarship program, were previously scheduled for disbursement to private schools on September 15, according an affidavit by Elizabeth McDuffie of the N.C. State Educational Assistance Authority.
But shortly after a scheduling order was issued in June for a final ruling on the program’s constitutionality to be held August 22, the SEAA moved up its school voucher disbursement date to August 15, sending $10 million taxpayer dollars out the door to private schools prior to the possibility that the program would be found unlawful.
Attorneys filed a motion earlier this month to block the early disbursement of voucher funds, concerned about the harm that could result from providing families with potentially worthless vouchers just as they send their kids to private schools this fall. Also unclear: how would the state recoup those funds if the state is forced to shut the voucher program down.
In his ruling today, Judge Hobgood said he wouldn’t move the summary judgment court date up before the state disburses the funds, nor would he issue a temporary injunction that would force the state to hold back the voucher funds until a decision on the case has been made.
Judge Hobgood also ruled in favor of allowing Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger to intervene in the case to defend the school voucher program.
Attorneys for those challenging the school voucher program, which provides families with $4,200 annually to send their children to private schools, argued today that disbursing school voucher funds now, before the merits of the case are decided, would be harmful to taxpayers.
“There is absolutely no harm to anybody in this case if the funds aren’t disbursed until September 15,” said attorney Eddie Speas. “There is irreparable harm to the public and taxpayers whose $10 million are at stake if that money is distributed to private schools prior to the court hearing.”
Lauren Clemmons, the lead attorney defending the state, rebutted plaintiffs’ arguments, saying that the pending 2015 state budget proposal put money designated for vouchers back into the public school budget.
“The [pending] legislative changes will eliminate a number of the legal challenges before this court,” Clemmons said.
Lawmakers passed a budget last year that tagged $10 million to be used beginning this fall for school vouchers, which funnel taxpayer funds to largely unaccountable private schools, 70 percent of which are religious institutions.
Yesterday, Speaker Thom Tillis announced that lawmakers added $800,000 to the school voucher program in the 2015 budget proposal. More details on that move will be revealed when the budget is unveiled, reportedly sometime today.
For more background on the school voucher litigation, click here.
The final court hearing to determine the constitutionality of the school voucher program will be held on August 19 at 9:30 a.m.