News

Following a hearing this morning, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles has preliminarily blocked implementation of the Greensboro redistricting plan rammed though the General Assembly in early July.

That plan would have fundamentally changed the city’s form of government and shifted its city council voting lines — overpopulating minority districts and pitting incumbents there against each other for municipal elections this fall.

Eagles found that the plan likely violated state and U.S. constitutions:

Here, the General Assembly passed the Act on the eve of the filing period with no advance notice of the boundaries of the reapportioned districts, there is no evidence of a legitimate state interest that is protected by treating the City of Greensboro and its voters differently from all other municipalities and municipal voters in the State, and Greensboro voters are disadvantaged by the State’s classification of them as unentitled to the referendum protections given to other municipal voters. With no rational basis, and especially when considered in light of the significantly different treatment above and beyond the referendum issue, this unequal treatment of Greensboro voters likely violates their equal protection rights.

Pursuant to the judge’s order, here, city council elections in Greensboro this fall will proceed under the provisions of prior law. Specifically:

Elections for Greensboro City Council will take place using the electoral districts, method of election, and form of government that existed prior to the enactment of Session Law 2015-138. Specifically, five council members will be elected to each represent a single district as those districts existed on July 1, 2015, three council members will be elected at-large, and the mayor will be elected at-large. Terms will last for two  years.

Elections will proceed under the nonpartisan primary and election method of voting set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-294. 3. The filing period for elections for Greensboro City Council will open at 12:00 P.M. on July 27, 2015, and close at 12:00 P.M. on August 7, 2015.

For more on how the new plan became law and what it would mean for Greensboro, read here.

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News

In a 4-3 decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Thursday the state’s school voucher program is constitutional. The ruling brought immediate reaction on both sides of the issue.

From voucher supporters:

School vouchers“I came to office promising to defend and expand educational opportunities for all children and all families regardless of circumstance. Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is a victory for every parent whose child is being underserved in North Carolina. This is a victory for choice, and it’s a victory for North Carolina students and their families.”   — Governor Pat McCrory

“We join the thousands of families across the state who are celebrating today because the Court has given them the legal right to exercise educational choice through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. We are thrilled for the many low-income students currently on the Program and the many more who need this option in the future.” — Darrell Allison, President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC)

“Two-hundred and twenty-four schools have worked with parents to allow students to attend the school of their choice. Today’s court decision means that more families will have realistic access to educational options for their children.We will continue to work to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program, so more student can be placed in an educational setting that is right for them.” — Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake)

From voucher opponents:

“Today is a sad day for any North Carolinian who cares about public education.  The North Carolina Supreme Court disregarded the plain language of our state Constitution, which provides that public funds for education must be used “exclusively” to support the public schools.  A voucher scheme that lacks standards and accountability will be allowed to continue draining funds from our public schools, harming students across our state and undermining the foundation of North Carolina’s prosperity.” — Christine Bischoff, staff attorney NC Justice Center

“This decision will continue the damage being done to our public schools and students by allowing private vouchers to drain money from our already underfunded schools. We believe the Constitution is clear; public funds for education should be used exclusively for public schools. NCAE will continue to fight for giving our students the resources to be successful like modern textbooks and technology, more one-on-one interaction with teachers, and a quality educator in every class.” — NCAE President Rodney Ellis

“We cannot fathom how this decision upholds the constitutional promise that all children receive a sound, basic education within the public school system.”  — Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First NC

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

The N.C. Supreme Court ruled that public dollars can be used for vouchers that allow low-income children to attend private schools in North Carolina, in a ruling released late Thursday afternoon.

That will mean that funding will continue for the voucher program this upcoming school year.

In the 55-page opinion released late Thursday afternoon, N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin said that the legislation creating the vouchers did not overtly counter the state’s constitution, and therefore the court could not rule the program unconstitutional.

“Our constitutionally assigned role is limited to a determination of whether the legislation is plainly and clearly prohibited by the constitution,” Martin wrote. “Because no prohibition in the constitution or in our precedent forecloses the General Assembly’s enactment of the challenged legislation here, the trial court’s order declaring the legislation unconstitutional is reversed.”

You can read the full decision, including the dissents, here.

Opponents of the measure had argued that the private school vouchers drain needed resources for public schools, and that it violated the state constitution to send public money to unaccountable private schools that are often religious in nature and can pick and choose (or discriminate against) their students.

Proponents, on the other hand, said the “opportunity scholarships” offered a needed educational choice to poor families unable to afford private schooling on their own.

For background, read this excerpt from an earlier article from N.C. Policy Watch reporter Sharon McCloskey:

In December 2013, groups that included taxpayers and the state and local school boards filed two separate lawsuits, alleging that the law violates state constitutional provisions requiring the expenditure of public funds exclusively for public schools, and contending that a voucher program wholly devoid of standards fails to meet the state’s obligation to provide all children with a “sound basic education” and thus does not satisfy the constitution’s “public purpose” provision.

[Superior Court]Judge Hobgood agreed with the challengers and temporarily blocked implementation of the program this past August, but state appellate courts later allowed monies to flow to families already approved for vouchers for the current school year while the cases proceeded in the courts.

The Supreme Court has likewise allowed the application process for vouchers next year to move forward while it considers the appeal.

Commentary

Budget see sawAs a one-time civics teacher, my job was to explain to 8th graders how our government works. On one level, it was simple: people vote for leaders who will represent them. The leaders make decisions on their behalf.

But, of course, that wasn’t the whole story. I usually stumbled through the part about politics and special interests. I labored to explain out how our tax system has grown increasingly regressive, shifting the responsibility off of large corporations and onto the pocketbooks of their parents. Inequality is an ugly reality, but a reality nonetheless.

North Carolinians understand the inequality that exists in our economy. They also understand how to fix it. On Wednesday, North Carolinians from across the state delivered a petition calling on lawmakers to listen to them – and not the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – when it comes to budget and tax choices. The petition, which included more than 6,000 signatures (and which was accompanied by a sign-on letter from 17 organizations representing tens of thousands of individuals) calls for an equitable and adequate tax system that keeps North Carolina strong.

As legislators continue to work on a final budget, many North Carolinians are concerned that their leaders will ignore their voices and instead choose to listen to ALEC. ALEC, a national arch-conservative group funded by large corporations, has designed many of the policies, such as tax cuts, low investments for protecting our communities, and giveaways to big corporations, that have moved North Carolina backwards. Indeed, as the post below notes, many lawmakers left Raleigh early this week to attend ALEC’s annual conference in San Diego.

At a press conference announcing the delivery of the petition, Tazra Mitchell, a policy analyst with the Budget & Tax Center, explained, “The disproven theory that corporate tax cuts help our economy move forward is economic snake oil that ALEC sells to state legislators around the country … These policies are a prescription for poor results that hinder the ability of our state to set up a foundation for future growth.”

After Mitchell’s remarks, more than a dozen North Carolinas spoke out on why they felt investments are critical to a strong and equitable economy. Some examples: Read More