Education

Parents cite discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation in challenge to state’s school voucher program

North Carolina’s private school voucher program is being challenged in court by seven parents with the support of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) and the National Education Association (NEA).

The parents filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on Monday charging that North Carolina’s controversial Opportunity Scholarship program operates with little state oversight and that some schools benefiting from the program discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.

The plaintiffs include parents from Durham, Cumberland, Randolph and Wake counties.

NCAE president Tamika Walker Kelly, a Fayetteville music teacher with a child in the public school system and former NCAE vice president Kristy Moore, a Durham educator with a child attending Durham Public Schools, are among the plaintiffs.

“Vouchers for private schools are an affront to a state that has a long and cherished history of public education,” Walker Kelly said in a statement. “Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools and on our state constitution.”

Patterson Harkavy LLP, a North Carolina law firm that focuses on civil rights and workers’ rights, represents the plaintiffs.

Tamika Walker Kelly

The General Assembly created the school voucher program in 2013. It provides $4,200 per year to parents to pay for part of the tuition at a private school. The State Education Assistance Authority handed out 12,284 vouchers to private schools during the 2019-2020 school year.

The program has been the target of criticism by public school advocates who complain it allows private schools to siphon money from underfunded public schools.

“Unfortunately, vouchers do nothing more than starve already scarce funding from the public schools that 90 percent of North Carolina students attend and give them to private schools that are unaccountable to parents and taxpayers,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “With almost complete autonomy on how they operate and no oversight or recourse when it comes to discrimination against students, private schools that receive vouchers can pick and choose which students they want and which students they’ll turn away. North Carolina should do what is best for students and reject vouchers.”

Rivca “Rikki” Rachel SaNogeuira, a plaintiff in the case, is Jewish, and is raising her daughter in the Jewish faith and tradition. Many schools funded through the voucher program only admit Christian students, the plaintiffs contend.

“They sell these vouchers as a ‘choice’ for parents, but they are not a choice for my family,” SaNoeuira said. “It is galling that my tax dollars are funding private schools where my family is not welcome because of our faith.”

The plaintiffs point to provisions in the state Constitution that prohibit religious discrimination.

In North Carolina, no person shall “be subjected to discrimination by the State because of race, color, religion, or national origin,” the plaintiffs contend.

They also contend the state constitution provides that “All persons have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and no human authority shall, in any case whatever control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

The plaintiffs argue that the state violates these commands when it funds schools that discriminate on the basis of religion, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.

Plaintiff Amanda Howell lives in Randolph County where every private school is a Christian school, and many have policies that discriminate against non-Christians.

“There isn’t a single non-religious private school in my entire county,” Howell said. “My tax dollars are paying for these vouchers, but I cannot use them because there is literally nowhere for me to spend it. My son has special needs that local public schools could not accommodate, but maybe if my local school had the money that is being spent on these vouchers, they would be able to help more children who need it.”

Kendra R. Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, a Raleigh-based social justice organization that works to secure equal rights and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) North Carolinians, said schools that discriminate against students based on their sexual orientation should not receive public money.

“Taxpayer funds should support safe and equitable learning that reinforces resilience, not classrooms that harm young people, especially Black and brown LGBTQ students who are already facing disproportionate risk of push out, bullying and violence.”

Plaintiff John Sherry is a member of Equality NC’s board of directors. He and his husband have two children, one of whom attends a Wake County public school. Sherry cannot enroll his children in many voucher-funded private schools in Wake County because he is gay, supports gay marriage and is married to a man, the lawsuit alleges.

Plaintiffs Kate and Elizabeth Meininger are married mothers who live in Fayetteville. Kate is Muslim and Elizabeth is Christian. The couple’s two children attend a public charter school in Fayetteville. The family qualifies for a voucher. They looked into local private schools but realized that nearly all are Christian, and that most discriminated against them on based on their LGBT status and Kate’s religion.

North Carolina’s school voucher program was in the news last week when Senate Leader Phil Berger urged parents to apply for school vouchers to send their children to private schools.

Berger has been pushing for the state to reopen schools for in-person instruction. He has been critical of Gov. Roy Cooper’s directive for districts to reopen using a mix of in-person and remote learning.

He said the state’s public schools are “failing the very students” they’re supposed to help and that many at-risk students out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic “don’t have a chance of catching up.”

“Meanwhile, children from well-off families can learn in-person at private school. I urge concerned parents to take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship program so their kids can get the same private school education as other children,” Berger said.

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