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Colorado’s Supreme Court struck down school vouchers on Monday, finding that they violate the state’s constitution because they send public dollars to private, religious institutions.

“Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever . . . .”

“This stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear: A school district may not aid religious schools. Yet aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP [school voucher program] does,” reads the court’s opinion, announced by Chief Justice Nance E. Rice.

Read the entire Colorado Supreme Court ruling here.

Colorado’s voucher program was only operational in the Douglas County school district, the state’s third largest—but Monday’s Supreme Court ruling has implications for school districts across Colorado, according to The Washington Post.

North Carolina’s own statewide school voucher program—known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program—is on pause pending a ruling from the state Supreme Court, which could come any day.

At issue? Whether or not the Opportunity Scholarship Program violates North Carolina’s constitution—which, similar to Colorado’s, says that taxpayer dollars should be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

Click here for the latest on school vouchers in North Carolina.

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The News & Observer reports that when faced with questions about why the Senate included a provision in its budget proposal that would end retirement health care for future teachers and state employees, some Senate leaders wouldn’t talk.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, who chairs the Pensions, Retirement and Aging Committee, said he couldn’t comment on the proposal because it came from the Senate’s top budget writers – not his committee. And Sen. Harry Brown, one of the chamber’s lead budget writers, walked away from a reporter without speaking when asked about the change.

Calls from N.C. Policy Watch to Senators Brown and Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) also went unanswered as we worked on a story last week highlighting the budget provision, which would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016.

Senator Phil Berger’s office did talk to the N&O, however.

“North Carolina has a massive $26 billion unfunded liability for retiree medical coverage, and the Senate budget is a prudent way to address the long-term viability of the State Health Plan,” said Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger.

Chuck Stone, lobbyist for the State Employees Association of NC (SEANC), told the N&O (as well as Policy Watch) that the Senate’s plan isn’t the way to go.

“Once you take [the health retirement benefit] away, what incentive is there to work for the state?” said Stone. “We are in a rush to have the worst State Health Plan coverage in the United States of America.”

Check out Chris Fitzsimon’s column on the Senate’s plan to end health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees published this morning.
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Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) filed a motion Tuesday asking the state Supreme Court to allow the controversial school voucher program to proceed for the 2015-16 academic year while the high court continues to debate the constitutionality of allowing families to use public dollars for tuition at private schools.

“Intervenor-Defendants respectfully request that this Court modify its 12 December 2014 Order granting in part a writ of supersedeas and permit the Opportunity Scholarship Program to move forward for the 2014-2015 academic year unimpeded by the Superior Court’s permanent injunction,” wrote attorneys who filed the motion on behalf of Senator Berger and Speaker Moore, who are defendant intervenors in a case that is seeking to halt the school voucher program.

The North Carolina Supreme Court last released opinions on June 11, and many expected a decision on the case at that time from the state’s highest court.

But a decision did not come, and the next scheduled date for Supreme Court opinions is not until August 21 — a point in time, as Tuesday’s motion highlights, when it will be nearly impossible to ensure that the program can continue for the upcoming academic year should the Court decide that the Opportunity Scholarship Program passes constitutional muster. (The Supreme Court is, however, able to issue opinions at any time and without regard to the scheduled dates, if the Court so desires.)

Last summer, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood put a halt to the Opportunity Scholarships program, enacted by the General Assembly in 2013.

Judge Hobgood found that the program failed constitutional muster for several reasons—chiefly because it funnels public dollars that should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining the uniform system of free public schools to private institutions instead, which the state holds to almost no curricular requirements or standards of accountability.

“The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” Judge Hobgood said.

The state, along with defendant-intervenors for parents as well as then-Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger appealed Hobgood’s ruling to the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals ruled last fall that the program could continue for this past academic year as the fate of the program was debated.

State lawmakers passed a 2013 budget that tagged $10 million to be used for the Opportunity Scholarships beginning in 2014. The vouchers, worth $4,200 per student annually, funnel taxpayer dollars to largely unaccountable private schools––70 percent of which are affiliated with religious institutions.

Proponents of the voucher program say it’s necessary to provide low-income families with options outside of the public school system—especially for those whose schools do not have the means to ensure a student’s academic success.

The House’s 2015-17 budget, passed last month, proposes expanding the school voucher program from $10 million to $17.6 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The Senate’s proposal does the same, but with recurring funds instead and for both years of the biennium.

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Two charter schools hoping to open up shop in North Carolina in 2016 have abandoned partnering with a troubled management company that had planned to operate the schools, according to the News & Observer.

The questions surrounding Newpoint Education Partners [a Florida-based education management company] caused the State Board of Education earlier this month to refer Pine Springs Preparatory Academy in Wake County and Cape Fear Preparatory Academy in New Hanover County to an advisory board for further review. Both schools have since submitted letters announcing they’re severing relations with Newpoint, according to Adam Levinson, interim head of the state Office of Charter Schools.

At a meeting of the State Board of Education earlier this month, the applications of Cape Fear Preparatory (New Hanover) and Pine Springs Preparatory (Wake) were kicked back to the state advisory board that reviews charter school applications so that they could further investigate allegations and charges of grade tampering and other abuses at some of Newpoint’s Florida charter schools.

A formal investigation by the Florida State’s Attorney into these allegations resulted in criminal charges handed down in early June—just as the charter school management company had hoped to nose its way into doing business in North Carolina (for more background, click here).

Other findings of the school district’s own investigation included students not completing curricular requirements; numerous missing or incomplete academic records for the schools’ students; allowing the employment of an individual who had not passed a background check; and teachers drinking alcohol with students on a senior trip/cruise, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

See Cape Fear Preparatory’s letter explaining their intention to cut ties with Newpoint here, which outlines how the board plans to operate the school without the aid of an education management organization.

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A few short lines in the 2015-17 Senate budget would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees hired after January 1, 2016.

“This will negatively impact the state’s ability to recruit good, qualified folks,” said Richard Rogers, executive director of the North Carolina Retired Governmental Employees’ Association. “In the future, I don’t see folks sticking with state government for the long term or for a career.

Current law provides teachers and state employees with a paid health insurance plan for the duration of retirement. It’s a graduated system, said Rogers, so employees must work a certain number of years in order to receive the maximum benefit of a fully-paid health insurance plan.

The Senate budget provision, located deep in the biennial proposal that was released and passed by Senators this week, would affect teachers and state employees who join the workforce after January 1, 2016 by eliminating the health insurance benefit altogether.

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The provision also affects those who stop out of the workforce and withdraw their retirement benefits from the state system, then re-join the workforce after January 1, 2016. Those state employees would also forfeit their retiree health insurance benefits.

The retiree state health plan provides health care coverage to more than 685,000 teachers, state employees, retirees, current and former lawmakers, state university and community college personnel, state hospital staff and their dependents, according to the plan’s website.

The General Assembly is expected to spend the rest of the summer hammering out a final 2015-17 budget for the state. Stay tuned to see if the Senate’s proposal to axe retirement health benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.