News

School-vouchersIn a 4-3 decision that defies principles of accountability to taxpayers and students alike, the elected Republican justices of the state Supreme Court today upheld a school voucher program that allows taxpayer dollars to fund tuition for private schools having virtually no obligation to provide North Carolina students with even a basic education.

Chief Justice Mark Martin, writing for the majority and joined by Justices Robert Edmunds, Paul Newby and Barbara Jackson, couched the opinion in terms of judicial restraint and deference to the legislature, saying that the court’s role was “limited to a determination of whether the legislation is plainly and clearly prohibited by the constitution.”

Finding that the state’s “Opportunity Scholarship Program” did not clearly violate the state constitution, the court reversed Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood’s 2014 ruling reaching the opposite conclusion.

“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,” Hobgood wrote at the time.

The challenged law, enacted as part of the 2013 state budget, allows the state to appropriate more than $10 million in public money to award qualifying low-income families $4200 per child for use at private schools.

Those schools, which can range from religious schools with several students to a home school of one, are not subject to state standards relating to curriculum, testing and teacher certification and are free to accept or reject students of their own choosing, including for religious or other discriminatory reasons.

In reaching its conclusion — and despite the constitution’s language that state funds should be “appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools” — the majority held that public funds may be spent on educational initiatives outside of the uniform system of free public schools.

As to the lack of accountability required of the private schools receiving public voucher money, the majority said that the constitutionally required “sound basic education” for North Carolina students, set down in the landmark Leandro decision, did not apply to private schools.

It is axiomatic that the responsibility Leandro places on the State to deliver a sound basic education has no applicability outside of the education delivered in our public schools. In Leandro we stated that a public school education that “does not serve the purpose of preparing students to participate and compete in the society in which they live and work is devoid of substance and is constitutionally inadequate.”  We concluded that the North Carolina Constitution guarantees every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools. Leandro does not [though] stand for the proposition that [the constitution] independently restricts the State outside of the public school context.

The upshot of that conclusion is that public schools paid for with taxpayer funds must provide students with such a “sound basic education.”  Taxpayer-funded private schools need not.

That double-standard particularly perturbed Justice Robin Hudson, who wrote in her dissenting opinion that “a large gap opens between Leandro-required standards and no standards at all, which is what we have here. When taxpayer money is used, the total absence of standards cannot be constitutional.”

Hudson added:

Private schools are free to provide whatever education they deem fit within the governing statutes’ requirements. When parents send their children to any private school of their choosing on their own dime, as they are free to do, that education need not satisfy our constitutional demand that it be a for a public purpose. However, when public funds are spent to enable a private school education, that spending must satisfy the public purpose clause of our constitution by preparing students to contribute to society. Without meaningful standards meant to ensure that this or any minimum threshold is met, public funds cannot be spent constitutionally through this Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Hudson, who was joined in her opinion by Justices Cheri Beasley and Sam Ervin, went on to compare accountability standards in the state’s voucher program with those in other states — and found North Carolina’s woefully inadequate.

“Compared with ten similar programs across the country, North Carolina’s program falls painfully short,” Hudson wrote.

Justice Cheri Beasley joined in Hudson’s opinion but wrote separately to explain her further concerns with the state’s voucher program.

Beasley pointed out that in Leandro, the court had already confirmed the right of every child in the state, not just those in public schools, to a “sound basic education.”

“The majority notes that the purpose of the grants is to address grade level deficiencies of a “large percentage of economically disadvantaged students,” but it is unclear whether or how this program truly addresses those children’s needs,” Beasley wrote.

She also noted the practical realities of a program that offers little help to the legislature’s professed beneficiaries:

For now, as noted by the majority, the program is available only to lower income families. This availability assumes that private schools are available within a feasible distance, that these families win the grant lottery, and that their children gain admission to the nonpublic school of their choice. With additional costs for transportation, tuition, books, and, at times, school uniforms, for the poorest of these families, the “opportunity” advertised in the Opportunity Scholarship Program is merely a “cruel illusion.”

Read the court’s full decision here.

News

Voter IDAttorneys and parties in the voting rights trial return to federal court in Winston-Salem this morning to continue presenting testimony and other evidence to U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder.

During week one of what’s expected to be a multi-week trial, attorneys for the parties challenging the sweeping voting restrictions adopted in 2013 unfolded their case with personal stories from voters who struggled to vote as a result, along with testimony from experts about the intent and the impact of the election law changes.

Attorneys for the state in turn sought to poke holes in that testimony, questioning the efforts voters took to cast their ballots and probing the analyses undertaken by the academics.

Here’s a quick look at some of what Judge Schroeder heard last week.

A number of voters testified about difficulties they had in casting a ballot that counted.

Durham resident Gwendolyn Farrington testified on Monday that she tried to vote near her 6 a.m.-to-6 p.m. job, since she couldn’t get to her own precinct, but was told that she had to cast a provisional ballot — which she later learned would not be counted. The 2013 voting changes prohibited the counting of provisional ballots cast in the right county but the wrong precinct.

Terrilyn Cunningham, a minister in Concord, had a similar experience on election day. When she went to vote early before work, she learned that she was in the wrong precinct, but was told she could cast a provisional ballot. Like Farrington, she later learned that her vote wouldn’t count.  Read More

News

Roy Cooper 3Attorney General Roy Cooper will not intervene and defend the General Assembly in the recently-filed lawsuit challenging the Greensboro  redistricting plan lawmakers adopted in early July, according to this post in the  News & Record.

The city and six residents sued the Guilford County Board of Elections in federal court, contending that House Bill 263 — which passed despite widespread opposition in the House and only after backroom arm-twisting — dramatically changes the city council’s district boundaries and denies residents the right to change their form of government in violation of the state and U.S. constitutions.

The challengers named the county board, which would be charged with implementing the plan, as the only defendant in the case, and have asked the court to block the plan pending a resolution of the lawsuit and at least until after the upcoming municipal elections.

“Neither the state nor its agencies have been sued in this lawsuit,” Noelle Talley, communications officer for the attorney general’s office, told the News & Record. “Our litigation resources are currently tied up elsewhere, especially in the election law area where other laws passed by the General Assembly are being challenged in court. Our office has suggested that legislative leaders use their authority to intervene and defend this lawsuit if they want that done.”

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles will hear argument on the request for a stay of the plan on July 23 in federal court in Greensboro.

News

gboroThe city of Greensboro and six residents filed a lawsuit in federal court in Greensboro yesterday to block the controversial redistricting plan recently enacted by the General Assembly, which they say denies residents the right to change their form of government in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution.

“If permitted to take effect, the Greensboro Act would destroy municipal government crafted and controlled by the citizens of Greensboro and replace it with a City Council founded upon unconstitutional voting districts and expressly limited in its powers of self-government,” they alleged in their complaint.

House Bill 263, which passed despite widespread opposition in the House and only after backroom arm-twisting, dramatically changes the city council’s district boundaries.

Here’s Greensboro News & Record columnist Susan Ladd on the passage and impact of the new plan:

The bill, which started as Senate Bill 36, radically restructured the city council with no public input or prompting. It eliminated at-large representation, took away the mayor’s vote, redrew districts to separate neighborhoods and put sitting representatives in the same district.

With SB 36 blocked in the House by the Elections Committee, Wade dumped the provisions of her original bill into HB 263, a redistricting bill for the city of Trinity that had passed the House. An initial vote by the House to concur on the expanded bill was rejected soundly, 73-35, which sent it to a joint House-Senate committee stacked with Wade’s supporters.

What emerged two days later was even worse. It divided the city into eight districts that would ensure that three of the six sitting council members — including two of the four black representatives — will lose their seats because they will be facing each other in the same district.

This is particularly rich in irony when you recall that Wade claimed her original bill would increase minority representation.

Now in the same district are Democrats Yvonne Johnson and Jamal Fox, Sharon Hightower and Justin Outling, and Mike Barber and Nancy Hoffmann. Democrat Marikay Abuzuaiter is now in a heavily Republican district.

The only council member left untouched is Tony Wilkins, the council’s only Republican, who said he couldn’t support the bill without a voters referendum, then went to Raleigh to speak in favor of it.

The city and residents challenging the plan have asked the court to temporarily block enforcement of the new plan while their challenge is pending in court and at least through the November 2015 municipal elections.

Read the full complaint here.

News
Crowd outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem

Crowd outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem

The battle over sweeping election law changes adopted in North Carolina in 2013 opened on two fronts yesterday.

In a packed courtroom inside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem, attorneys for both the challengers and the state laid out the case they planned to present to U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder over the next several weeks.

State lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they stripped away same day registration, cut early voting days and eliminated the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots — provisions used widely by minority voters — Penda D. Hair, an attorney for the North Carolina NAACP, said in her opening statement.

“They were voter suppressors in search of a pretext,” she told the judge.

The state has argued throughout the case that the 2013 changes were neutral on their face, burdening all voters – not just African-American or Latino voters – and that the state’s election laws now resembled those in other states, where same day registration and early voting don’t exist.

But Hair dismissed that argument, saying that other states do not have the same racially-charged history of voter suppression as does North Carolina.

“Poll taxes were neutral on their face,” Hair said. “Literacy tests were neutral on their face. The law teaches it is the impact that matters – an impact that is linked to social and historical conditions – not whether a law explicitly says African Americans or Latinos are not allowed to vote.”

Outside, the trial over the voting changes in the court of public opinion also waged on.

Speakers from the state NAACP held an early morning press conference while their supporters and others from voting rights advocacy groups chanted what’s become the mantra for the Moral Monday movement: “Forward together! Not one step back.”

Ricky Diaz for the NCGOP

Ricky Diaz for the NCGOP

In the opposite corner behind a podium bearing the NCGOP logo, state Republican Party spokesman Ricky Diaz told the media that the election law changes were simply common sense provisions meant to ensure the integrity of the vote.

The parties have identified nearly 100 voters, experts and state officials as possible witnesses in the case, and once opening arguments ended, the challengers began calling them to the stand.

Durham resident Gwendolyn Farrington told the court that she tried to vote near her 6 a.m.-to-6 p.m. job, since she couldn’t get to her own precinct, but was told that she had to cast a provisional ballot — which she later learned would not be counted.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the state NAACP, also took the stand yesterday afternoon in advance of a planned Moral Monday voting rights march held at 5 p.m. in Winston-Salem.

“In North Carolina, a literacy test is still on the books,” Barber said. “The Voting Rights Act overruled it, but it remains there as a symbol.”

“In this country we should be doing everything humanly possible to ensure all people can vote,” he added.

Trial will continue day-to-day at the federal courthouse at 251 N. Main Street, Winston-Salem, and is expected to last at least two weeks.   Read here for more on what to expect during the proceedings.