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Commentary

Last week’s ruling that North Carolina tax dollars may be used to support private schools with literally no standards of accountability at all has generated some scathing editorials from the state’s major newspapers. Here are a few excerpts:

From Raleigh’s News & Observer:

“It is distressing on its face, this idea that public money can go toward the expenses of private schooling. It crosses the divide between public and private, between church and state, between common sense and partisan ideology.

And yet, in a ruling with a clear partisan flavor, the North Carolina Supreme Court, having snatched the confrontation over a school voucher program out of the hands of the N.C. Court of Appeals where it should properly have gone, has upheld the Republican legislature’s voucher program. This is a devastating ruling for the future of public education.”

From the Greensboro News & Record:

“In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court unanimously delivered its landmark Leandro ruling that declared the state has an obligation to offer every child a “sound, basic education.”

In a 4-3 decision Thursday, the court regrettably took a big step back from that principle, finding that the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is constitutional.”

From the Fayetteville Observer (after noting that it does not oppose vouchers):

“That said, we do have a deep concern about the lack of accountability in the voucher program, an issue raised in Justice Robin Hudson’s dissent. ‘The main constitutional flaw in this program,’ she wrote, ‘is that it provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools’ contribution to public purposes; such a huge omission is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear.’

The investment of tax dollars must be accompanied by accountability. The General Assembly needs to remedy that problem. If it does, we expect the voucher program to improve the lot of some students who otherwise might fall into the cracks and never see success.”

Stay tuned. There will be lots more like this to come.
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

Editorial pages and good government advocates are weighing in this morning in praise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to send North Carolina’s gerrymandered legislative maps back to the state Supreme Court for further review. This morning’s Fayetteville Observer calls the decision a “setback” for gerrymandering and concludes this way:

“We don’t know how this will be settled, but it reminds us that the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission is the real solution that we need.”

Meanwhile, Raleigh’s News & Observer terms the ruling a “voter victory.” It also notes that:

“Redrawing legislative and congressional districts is a task that ruling parties take on after a census. It’s true, as Republicans have claimed, that Democrats drew districts to their advantage when they were in power, but they did not go to the extremes the GOP did.

Think of how much time and trouble and money the state could save if it established a bipartisan commission to draw districts every 10 years. But don’t expect that to happen while Republicans continue to enjoy being in power after 100 years out of it.”

And for more details on how a nonpartisan solution is within easy reach of the General Assembly, turn over to the right side of the N&O editorial section and read this op-ed by Common Cause board member and retired N.C. State professor Larry King in which he explains how GOP lawmakers like Representatives David Lewis and Bert Jones have done one of the all-time flip flops on the issue. As King explains:

“Republican Party leaders need to let the democratic process play out. This is legislation they have long championed. North Carolina Republicans remember all too well how frustrating it was when their voices weren’t heard because of gerrymandered districts. Redistricting reform ensures this never happens again. It’s time to end gerrymandering once and for all in North Carolina, and it starts with letting H92 be heard in committee.

The residents of North Carolina deserve no less.”

Commentary

Be sure to check out Sharon McCloskey’s excellent story over on the main Policy Watch site this morning summarizing yesterday’s state Supreme Court argument in the school voucher case. You’ll get the history, the basics of the arguments and a blow by blow of yesterday’s proceedings.

If you want to grasp what is perhaps the essence of the plaintiff’s challenge, however, check out the following excerpt that Sharon quoted from the argument of the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Raleigh civil rights attorney Burton Craige:

“North Carolina’s voucher program is unique. No other voucher program in the country allows the receipts of vouchers by private schools that can be unaccredited; employ unlicensed uncertified teachers — including teachers who don’t even have a high school diploma; employ teachers and staff without performing a criminal background check; teach no science or history; teach only the recitation of religious texts; and discriminate against students with disabilities. In the absence of standards, North Carolina stands in a class of its own.”

And here is a five minute excerpt from Craige’s argument:

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Commentary, News

For those thinking about attending tomorrow’s scheduled state Supreme Court has oral arguments on the state’s school vouchers law, the court has rescheduled until NEXT Tuesday due to the inclement weather. let’s hope the justices spend some of their time reading op-eds like this one that ran in Greensboro News Record over the weekend. As the paper noted:

“A grant of $4,200 doesn’t give a poor family an “equal opportunity” to send its child to the same school that a wealthy family can afford. For example, tuition at Greensboro Day School for children in grades 1 through 4 is $18,400, leaving the voucher family $14,200 short.

Equality is the first false promise of this program. The second is that any private school is as good as or better than a public school. Yet, the state doesn’t hold participating private schools to any standards. They don’t have to offer small class sizes, teach an approved curriculum or hire certified teachers — or even teachers who pass a criminal background check….

When it comes to the public schools, the legislature demands accountability. It places A-F grades on public schools to let everyone know how they’re performing. Of private schools that receive public funding, the legislature demands nothing. They get free money and a free pass. Why?”