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The battle over school vouchers in North Carolina is now before the state Supreme Court, thanks to an emergency motion filed late Monday by attorneys on behalf of Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger and parents to allow the taxpayer-funded vouchers, ruled unconstitutional by a Superior Court judge last week, to be disbursed to private schools immediately while the fate of the program is decided.

Plaintiffs challenging the school voucher program – parents, educators, community members and school boards represented by the N.C. Justice Center, the North Carolina Association of Educators, and the N.C. School Boards Association – filed a response Tuesday morning to the motion now before the state’s highest court.

“[The defendants] implore the Court to put millions of taxpayer dollars at risk by turning on the spigot of public funds almost a month before the SEAA’s long-planned disbursement schedule, nullifying a decision by a senior trial judge entered after months of discovery and consideration of hundreds of pages of evidence and briefs,” said the plaintiffs’ response. Read More

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School-vouchersThe N.C. Court of Appeals rejected an emergency request by the state’s Attorney General and parents to allow taxpayer-funded school vouchers, ruled unconstitutional by a Superior Court judge last week, to be disbursed to private schools while a higher court decides on the fate of the program.

Last Thursday, state Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood found the recently-enacted “Opportunity Scholarship Program” unconstitutional and permanently enjoined disbursement of state funds for that purpose (see our feature story about Hobgood’s decision here). 

Attorneys for the state and parents wishing to take advantage of the school vouchers this fall filed an emergency motion with the N.C. Court of Appeals on Friday requesting that the vouchers, worth $4,200 annually for roughly 2,400 students, be paid out for this school year while the case is appealed.

The attorneys filed their emergency motion before Judge Hobgood released his written order — a premature move, according to attorney Burton Craige, who represents plaintiffs challenging the school voucher legislation.

“If there’s no written order, then there’s nothing to appeal,” said Craige, who said the move to file an emergency petition was an attempt to get around the usual order of business.

The Court of Appeals did make it clear in its decision that once a written order is in place, the state may re-file its motion for a temporary stay in the case, “without prejudice.”

But Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in NC (PEFNC), a pro-voucher advocacy organization that has hired an out-of-state law firm to intervene in the school voucher litigation, issued a press release today saying the Court of Appeals’ decision immediately paves the way for bringing an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“Today’s decision is disappointing but we’re glad we can now quickly appeal to the highest court to help many Opportunity Scholarship students who have already begun their school year and been thrown into disarray… the Supreme Court overturned a previous temporary injunction ruling once before this year and I am confident they will do the same in this case which will allow the Program to move forward until the merits of the case can be heard.  

Stay tuned for further developments.

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The Charlotte Observer:

In striking down the state’s new school voucher law on Thursday, N.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood laid out a cogent, compelling constitutional case against the bad law. “Beyond a reasonable doubt…,” he said from the bench, “the Opportunity Scholarship program funds a system of private schools from taxpayer dollars as an alternative to the public school system in direct contravention of the North Carolina Constitution….”

Voucher advocates say they will appeal, noting that parents need choices other than traditional public schools. But Hobgood correctly notes that the state is constitutionally obligated to provide a sound, basic education to N.C. students, and lawmakers can’t delegate that obligation to “unregulated” and “unaccountable” private schools.

The Greensboro News & Record:

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood’s opinion of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program was blunt.

“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,” he said Thursday in ordering an immediate halt to the voucher plan.

That was not a political statement. Hobgood, a veteran judge holding court in Wake County, cited several provisions of the state constitution violated by the voucher program….

Attorney General Roy Cooper said his office will appeal to higher courts, but Hobgood’s interpretation of the state constitution seems sound.

It was the legislature that went off track in enacting a program that diverts millions of dollars from public schools and contradicts good judgment. At a time when more accountability is demanded of public schools and educators, this program asks almost nothing of participating private schools. It just sends them money.

Bad idea. And, according to the judge, it violates the state constitution.

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Education-budgetLate last night, lawmakers released a final budget deal brokered between the House and Senate that provides pay raises for teachers and a number of other education funding adjustments.

There’s a lot to process in the mammoth document, so let’s just get started with the basics on education, and I promise you — there will be more to come.

Teacher Pay

Lawmakers say they’ve provided an average 7 percent pay increase for teachers in this budget, but there’s widespread dispute over that figure since longevity pay has been wrapped up into the pay raises.

To see a side-by-side comparison of the old and new teacher pay schedules, click here.

Senator Phil Berger called the teacher pay raise the largest in North Carolina’s history, although the folks at ProgressNC fact-checked that claim and found it to be false.

Teacher Assistants

Lawmakers say TAs are “preserved” this year in the budget, but there are a few catches.

Lottery revenues will pay for a share of the funding for teacher assistants, and a portion of TAs will also be funded with non-recurring funds – meaning there will be another fight to keep them next year.

Also mentioned at Tuesday’s press conference– $65 million that was supposed to pay for TAs was moved back into funding for teacher positions. But local superintendents have the “flexibility” to move that money back over and save more TAs.

*However, that figure is not apparent in the budget’s money report. What we do know, however, is that in the certified 2014-15 budget, TAs were slated to cost $477,433,254 — but this latest budget spends $368.3 million.

Finally, while most state employees will get a $1,000 raise, TAs only get a $500 raise, along with public school custodial workers, cafeteria workers and other non-certified and central office personnel.

Higher Education

While lawmakers said on Tuesday they were able to preserve current funding levels for the university system, what actually is in place is a now slightly increased $76 million dollar cut that was in the original two-year budget passed in July 2013, but not in the most recent budget proposals.

This cut comes on top of years of cuts to the university system that have resulted in thousands of lost jobs and eliminated courses.

In 2011, the state’s universities had to cut $80 million, or 3.4 percent of its overall budget. Five hundred classes were eliminated, 3,000 jobs were cut and another 1,500 vacant jobs were eliminated. In the four years prior to 2011, state funding to the university system was slashed by $1.2 billion. Read More

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School vouchersSchool voucher money could be in the hands of families and schools one month earlier than planned for the upcoming school year—and prior to a court date that could rule the program unconstitutional.

According to an updated schedule published on June 20 on the N.C.  State Education Assistance Authority’s website, funds for the school vouchers, formally known as taxpayer-funded Opportunity Scholarships that are worth up to $4,200 per student annually to attend a private school, are now scheduled to be delivered to schools on August 15.

The money for school vouchers was previously scheduled for disbursement September 15, according an affidavit by Elizabeth McDuffie of the NC SEAA. But a court date that had been scheduled for August 22 could halt the program before school starts if Judge Robert H. Hobgood rules the voucher program unconstitutional.

Attorneys filed a motion late last week to block the early disbursement of funds, concerned about the harm that could result from providing families with potentially worthless vouchers just as they send their kids to private schools this fall. A hearing to consider delaying the disbursement of funds until after the court decides if the program should go forward will take place this Friday at 3:30p.m.

“If funds are distributed to parents and schools to support a program that is going to be declared unconstitutional in late August, then the state is put in the position of having to retrieve that money from hundreds of schools, and parents who are relying on these vouchers are going to find that the voucher is worthless,” said Burton Craige, attorney for plaintiffs who are challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program.

“So this disrupts parents, children, schools, and the state in its use of taxpayer funds.”

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