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In a packed courtroom this morning, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood ruled that challenges to the state’s school voucher program, dubbed the “Opportunity Scholarship Program,”  could move forward toward trial.

The program, which was adopted as part of the budget bill signed into law by the governor in July, allows income-eligible families to apply for up to $4200 in tuition funds for use at private schools.

A group of 25 educators and state taxpayers fired the opening salvo in December when they filed suit, contending that the use of taxpayer money for private schools violated provisions of the state constitution requiring that public dollars be used exclusively for a system of free public schools. Four individuals and the North Carolina School Boards Association filed a second suit days later making similar allegations. Since then more than 70 county boards of education have signed on to that lawsuit. 

Today, attorneys for the state as well as for the nonprofit Institute for Justice — a Washington, D.C. – based school choice organization which Hobgood allowed to join the lawsuits today on behalf of applicants to the program  —  tried to convince the court that the complaints lacked merit and should be dismissed.

Attorney Lauren Clemmons, arguing for the state, said that the General Assembly met its obligation to spend public funds for public purposes in enacting the program because the public purpose was “education” in the broadest sense of the word, not just public education.

The program provides scholarship funds to parents for the education of their children in private schools, she told Judge Hobgood.

Clemmons added that voucher money didn’t necessarily come from funds specifically earmarked for public education.  She led the court through the circuitous route through which voucher funds traveled — from the total education budget through the UNC system  to parents and ultimately private schools — an exercise that left many scratching their heads and wondering whether,  by undertaking so many budgetary maneuvers, the General Assembly wasn’t really just trying to hide the ball.

“A budgetary shell game does not neuter the constitution,” attorney Burton Craige said when the plaintiffs’ counsel got their turn to address the court.

And the state constitution could not be more clear, he added, in stating that state revenue for the purposes of public education be used “exclusively”  for  public schools.

“We’re asking the court to declare that “exclusively” means “exclusively,” Craige told Hobgood.

After hearing more than two hours of argument, Hobgood ruled from the bench that the challengers had stated their claims sufficiently enough to allow them to move forward and denied the state’s request to dismiss the complaints.

The next step in the proceedings comes quickly, as the court will hear argument on Friday regarding requests by those challenging the vouchers to delay implementation of the program until the court rules on its constitutionality.

Should the court deny those requests, the state can begin vetting more than 4,000 applicants for income eligibility and then conduct a lottery to determine who will receive funds for the coming school year — estimated to be close to 2400 students.

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In a matter of days, the number of local school boards that has signed on to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the new school voucher legislation has jumped from 16 to 40.

Filed by the North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA), the lawsuit calls into question the constitutionality of providing families with $4,200 annual taxpayer-funded scholarships to use at private schools.

The 40 school boards (out of a total of 115 in the state) that have voted to challenge school vouchers are as follows:

Alamance County
Asheboro City
Catawba County
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City
Chatham County
Cleveland County
Columbus County
Craven County
Currituck County
Davidson County
Durham County
Edenton-Chowan
Gates County
Graham County
Halifax County
Harnett County
Hyde County
Lee County
Lenoir County
Lexington City
Macon County
Martin County
Mount Airy City
Newton-Conover
Onslow County
Orange County
Pamlico County
Person County
Pitt County
Polk County
Rockingham County
Rutherford County
Scotland County
Stanly County
Surry County
Vance County
Warren County
Washington County
Whiteville City
Yancey County

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Lenoir County has joined a growing number of school districts that have signed on to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) challenging the recently-enacted school voucher law.

Last week, Lenoir’s school board voted unanimously to join the suit, which calls into question the constitutionality of providing families with $4,200 annual taxpayer-funded scholarships to use at private schools.

As of today, 16 school districts have signed on to be plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

  1. Asheboro City
  2. Catawba County
  3. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City
  4. Durham County
  5. Edenton-Chowan
  6. Hyde County
  7. Lenoir County
  8. Macon County
  9. Mount Airy City
  10. Onslow County
  11. Person County
  12. Pitt County
  13. Rutherford County
  14. Stanly County
  15. Surry County
  16. Yancey County

More districts are expected to follow–Vance County will vote this evening on whether to join the lawsuit.

*This post was updated to include seven more school districts that have signed on to be plaintiffs in the voucher lawsuit, per NCSBA.

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Members of the Pitt County school board voted 9-1 Monday night to join a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new school voucher program—the sixth local school board to do so since the complaint was filed in mid-December. The school board also passed a resolution indicating their district would not participate in the new teacher contract system.

The North Carolina School Boards Association filed a complaint against the state on December 16, calling into question the General Assembly’s decision to provide $4,200 annual taxpayer-funded school vouchers for student attendance at private schools, alleging that the legislation violates the state constitution.

“There are serious legal and constitutional issues that surround this [voucher] program,” said attorney and former NC Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who is working on behalf of the NC School Boards Association in the voucher litigation. “The declaratory judgment action says we have a responsibility under the constitution to provide a sound basic education to every child in the state and we need the court to answer this question.” Read More

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It’s been  a year of radical and frequently destructive change in the world of public education in North Carolina and Policy Watch reporter Lindsay Wagner has a great summary of nine top stories over on the main site. For example:

1. Tax dollars now can be funneled to unaccountable private (and home) schools.

Lawmakers passed a budget last July that allows parents to send their kids to private schools with annual taxpayer-funded $4,200 vouchers. Dubbed “Opportunity Scholarships,” the program was championed by Rep. Skip Stam, who believes that all parents should be able to send their kids to any school on the taxpayer’s dime—even if that school teaches kids that dinosaurs walked the earth with man or the KKK was just a band of moral-minded folks.

On tap for 2014: We’ll keep you posted on the roll out of the school voucher program, which will begin accepting applications in February in anticipation of its Fall 2014 start date. Stay tuned for developments in the school voucher lawsuit that was just filed by 25 teachers who oppose using taxpayer dollars to fund private education. And read my most recent story about one home school that’s classified as a private school by the state, allowing it to receive vouchers too.

Click here to read the other eight.