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School vouchersLate last week the state Supreme Court moved on the school voucher case now pending there, allowing the State Education Assistance Authority to undertake administrative steps needed to get the program on track for an August 2015 disbursement of funds, but otherwise keeping in place an order preventing any such disbursement until the justices say otherwise.

The court also expedited the appeal process and set February 17, 2015 for argument.

In papers filed Dec. 10,  Sen. Pres. Phil Berger,  Speaker Thom Tillis and parents who intervened in the case asked the court to allow the program to move ahead full throttle while the appeal is pending — including the disbursement of funds in August 2015 in the event the court has not rendered its decision.

The court granted that request only to the extent of allowing program administration to move forward — including the application process scheduled to run from Jan. 20 – Feb. 27, 2015.

 

Commentary

School-vouchersICYMI, be sure to check out education reporter Lindsay Wagner’s story this morning over on the main Policy Watch site: “School vouchers: A second look at fraud and abuse.”

As Wagner reports, the disturbing stories from Arizona, Wisconsin and Louisiana — where standards for vouchers are actually tougher in many instances than North Carolina’s — are all-too-common.

For instance:

Arizona implemented a private school tuition tax credit program in 1997. That program was designed to aid low-income families to take advantage of private schools.

A report by the national advocacy group People for the American Way found that over a three-year period, the Arizona scheme has cost the state more than $55 million in funds that have gone largely to subsidize private and religious education for middle- and upper-income families.

And then there’s this:

An investigation by the Wisconsin State Journal has found that Wisconsin’s taxpayers have lost $139 million dollars over the past ten years to private schools that have received funds from the state’s voucher program but were ultimately excluded from participating, thanks to their failure to meet standards relating to finances, accreditation, student safety and auditing.

Read the entire story by clicking here.

News

Supreme CourtThe state Supreme Court today bypassed the Court of Appeals and took five controversial cases for direct review, exercising its rarely-used discretion and raising eyebrows over the timing, with contentious partisan elections soon getting underway.

The issues raised in the cases — school vouchers, coal ash, class certification — are hot buttons, and some of the parties involved have deep-pockets — including Duke Energy and U.S. Tobacco Cooperative

The high court took those cases despite having yet to render opinions in several high-profile cases — including the redistricting case, which has been pending since argument in January, and two cases concerning the Racial Justice Act, pending since argument in April.

Here are the cases:

Hart v. North Carolina:  This is the appeal of Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood’s August ruling that the state’s newly-enacted school voucher program was unconstitutional because it:

1) appropriates to private schools grades K-12, by use of funds which apparently have gone to the university system budget but which should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining the uniform system of free public schools;

2) appropriates education funds in a manner that does not accomplish a public purpose;

3) appropriates educational funds outside the supervision and administration of the state board of education;

4) creates a non-uniform system of education;

5) appropriates taxpayer funds to educational institutions that have no standards, curriculum and requirements for teachers and principals to be certified;

6) fails to guard and maintain the rights of the people who privilege the education by siphoning money from the public schools in favor of private schools; and

7) allows funding of non-public schools that discriminate on account of religion.

The case had just gotten underway in the Court of Appeals before the Supreme Court’s order today.

Cape Fear River Watch v. N.C. Environmental Management Commission:  This is Duke Energy’s appeal of Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway’s March ruling requiring the company to immediately eliminate the source of groundwater contamination at its coal ash pits — in advance of any clean-up plans it might later adopt.  In its opening brief in the Court of Appeals, Duke Energy argues that the Coal Ash Management Act passed by the General Assembly in August overruled the lower court’s decision.

Fisher v. Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization (U.S. Tobacco Cooperative): This is an appeal of the certification of a class comprised of some 800,000 past and present tobacco farmers (per U.S. Tobacco Co-op’s brief) claiming to be entitled to and seeking payment from a $340 million reserve fund held and maintained by the cooperative.

Arnesen v. Rivers Edge Golf Club: Five cases are consolidated in this appeal, in which purchasers of vacant lots in Brunswick County sued the developer, mortgage broker, appraisers, attorneys, and BBT Bank, alleging a scheme to sell the lots at artificially inflated prices through “high-pressure, misleading sales tactics, fruadulent appraisals, unscrupulous lending practice and other conduct.”  Purchasers of the lots are appealing orders from the Business Court dismissing certain claims and defendants.

Cubbage v. N.C. State University Endowment Fund: This case concerns the pending sale of the Hofmann State Forest by the N.C. State Endowment Fund, which plaintiffs say was negotiated in secret and failed to comply with the N.C. Environmental Policy Act because the fund never obtained an Environmental Impact Statement. Wake County Superior Court Judge Shannon Joseph dismissed the case last November.

Commentary

School-vouchersThis morning’s editorial in the Fayetteville Observer takes a rather charitable view toward parents who signed their children up for North Carolina’s new school voucher plan and then found themselves without the subsidy once Judge Robert Hobgood rightfully struck down the program as blatantly unconstitutional. The paper is okay with last week’s Court of Appeals ruling that the state should go ahead and disburse the money to the private schools in which the parents enrolled their kids.

Reasonable minds can differ on this generous take; after all, it’s the private schools (which knew the risks) that are really out the money. But the paper is right that, assuming this is a one-time deal, the damage will be minimal. The remainder of editorial is largely spot on, however, with its take on the voucher program more generally and going forward:

In his earlier ruling against the program, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said it not only gave tax dollars to non-public schools, but established no standards for the schools to which the money would go.

Friday’s decision wisely allows the children already enrolled to continue through this school year. There’s no point in penalizing families who believed they were part of a legitimate state program.

But lawmakers should stop hoping for a court to read the constitution crossed-eyed and discern something that isn’t there. The General Assembly should prepare for the rejection of Opportunity Scholarships.

Hobgood’s ruling also spelled out the way legislators can fix this: “The expenditure of public funds raised by tax action to finance the operation of privately operated, managed and controlled schools … would require a constitutional amendment approved by the vote of the citizens of North Carolina.”

To preserve Opportunity Scholarships, stop pretending and begin the amendment process. And also include standards to hold participating private schools accountable.

Read the rest of the editorial by clicking here.

Commentary

School vouchersIn case you missed it, be sure to check out the lead story this morning over on the main Policy Watch site by Prof. William Snider, head of the Neuroscience Center at the the UNC School of Medicine: “Will voucher students learn biology?” 

If you read through the thoughtful, detailed and quite generous essay, you’ll learn that the answer to the title question is quite clearly and regrettably “No chance.”

As Snider explains, while the book certainly includes some scientifically valid material, it is also chock full of blatant falsehoods and fundamentalist Christianity masquerading as science. Not surprisingly, it attacks the evolution as “a retreat from science” and makes the claim that: “Since the day that Darwinism invaded the classroom, God’s glory has been hidden from students.”

There are numerous other falsehoods in the book that would , if more widely made a part of American science education, grievously handicap the nation’s students and its future. As Prof. Snider sums things up:

“In sum, the A Beka text as a central component of a high school biology curriculum would be suspect if it were evaluated by a state board of education. It would fail because of confusing science and religion, for misstating the theory of evolution, and because it compares unfavorably with other texts in not fully presenting modern advances in cell biology and genetics. It is difficult to envision the justification for using state funds to support curricula that do not prepare students for the modern workplace.”

Let’s hope that exposés like Snider’s continue to be spread far and wide as North Carolina continues to wrestle with the notion of using public funds to underwrite this kind of educational malpractice.

Read Snider’s entire essay by clicking here.