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NC Groups Sue State Over ‘Unconstitutional’ Private School Vouchers

Photo of student desks and chairs
Flickr via Chengyin Liu

With the support of two advocacy groups, 25 plaintiffs across the state filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging a private school voucher law passed earlier this year.

The N.C. Association of Educators and N.C. Justice Center are sponsoring the lawsuit, arguing that the vouchers are a broad assault on the state’s public schools as it funnels taxpayer money to private schools.

Scheduled to start next fall, the vouchers – also known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program - will provide $4,200 in taxpayer dollars for low-income families to send their children to private schools.

“A Direct Threat”

The lawsuit was filed in Wake County Superior Court, and claims that the law is a violation of fundamental provisions of the state constitution. It points to a mandate that says public funds for education are to be used “exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Burton Craige says he’s seeking an injunction to stop the voucher law before it starts next fall.

“These are taxpayer funds being redirected into private schools,” he said. “Now, we have no problem with private schools, have no problems with homeschools…but we don't ask taxpayers to fund it.”

Rodney Ellis, president of NCAE and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says that taxpayers don’t want to be responsible for students in private schools, which aren’t held accountable to the public.

The voucher program, he argues, “will siphon public money from schools already struggling to make ends meet. As a teacher, as a father of children in public schools, as a taxpayer, I find this offensive and wrong.”

“Keeping the Poor in Failing Schools”

Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, both republicans, denounced the lawsuit in a written statement, accusing the plaintiffs of holding back disadvantaged kids.

“Not only are these left-wing interest groups fighting every attempt to improve public education, they now want to trap underprivileged and disabled children in low-performing schools where they will continue to fall behind their peers,” they wrote.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, echoed the sentiments, saying he’s “puzzled” by the lawsuit.

“The whole idea around the opportunity scholarship is not to overthrow public education as we know it,” he said. “We have issues, drastic issues. We’ve been in crisis mode for adequate education for low-income children for years, for years.”

The state budget appropriated $10 million for the program to serve students in the 2014-15 school year, and is scheduled to begin accepting applications for the fall next February. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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