North Carolina Supreme Court hears arguments in suit challenging the constitutionality of state’s voucher program
The News & Observer reports that the North Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments in a suit challenging the constitutional validity of the state’s private school voucher program. The justices asked what constituted a “public purpose,” questioned interpretations of the state constitution and its framers’ intentions, and asked about guarantees for a quality education from schools and teachers not governed by state standards or oversight.
The voucher program, struck down by Judge Robert Hobgood in August, would have provided low-income families who wanted to send their children to private schools as much as $4,200 annually in taxpayer dollars. Hobgood declared it a violation of the North Carolina Constitution, saying “appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose.”
Lauren Clemmons, an assistant state attorney general, argued that the voucher program approved in 2013 “supplements educational choices available to the state’s low-income students” and doesn’t “supplant the uniform system of free public schools.” Burton Craige, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, countered, “North Carolina has many fine private schools, but the problem with this legislation is these funds flow to all private schools, regardless of quality,” He also told the justices, “The legislature can’t hand over millions of dollars based on the blithe assumption that anything that calls itself a school is providing a real education.”
In arguments that touched on North Carolina’s past, Craige noted that a program adopted nearly six decades ago in which families hoping to evade desegregation laws could get vouchers for private schools was declared unconstitutional after passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. “If this General Assembly wants to give taxpayer funds to private schools, it can do so only through amendment to the constitution,” Craige said.
Attorneys representing lawmakers argued that North Carolina public schools weren’t working for many students from low-income families, arguing that five of six students from economically disadvantaged families were failing one or both of the end-of-grade reading and math tests given by public schools. They called vouchers a ” parental choice program” for low-income families.
Richard Komer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents some families with vouchers, argued that the private schools are accountable to the parents of their students. He added that it was the parents, not the private schools, which benefitted from the public funds. “Parents know what’s best for their children and will seek an adequate, decent, education for their children,” Komer said.
Bob Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice, a former North Carolina Court of Appeals judge and a member of the legal team challenging the vouchers, argued that as approved, the voucher program did not require that students approved for vouchers be from failing schools. Nor did it require them to show that they were struggling. Orr and Craige said that many religious schools require students to adhere to the tenets of the faith with which the school is affiliated. Nearly two-thirds of the private schools in North Carolina are unaccredited, Craige noted and there would be no way to ensure that their teachers were well-trained. ” Where’s the public benefit in a standard-less education in which the state has no ability to impose at least certain parameters on curriculums and standardization of teachers?” Orr asked.
Source: News & Observer, 2/24/15, By Anne Blythe
[Editor's note: in February 2015, Legal Clips published a Sua Sponte item reporting that the National School Boards Association (NSBA) had filed an amicus brief in Richardson v. State of North Carolina urging the North Carolina Supreme Court to hold the state's voucher program unconstitutional. The brief argues that the program fails to pass constitutional muster on two grounds: first, the voucher program’s lack of accountability harms North Carolina taxpayers. Second, the program harms public education in two ways: (1) it undermines the significant role of public education in America; and (2) the program’s diversion of public dollars away from schools harms North Carolina public schools.]