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Judge Suspends NC Private School Vouchers

Judge Robert Hobgood granted opponents’ plea to freeze a law  that uses public funds to send low-income students to private schools.
Reema Khrais

A North Carolina judge is blocking a new law that uses taxpayer dollars to send low-income students to private or religious schools. 

Responding to opponents’ request to stop the voucher program, the judge ruled Friday that the yearly grants of up to $4200 violate the state constitution.

“The court finds that to maintain the status quo, that the state school fund must be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a system of public schools, of course, in concert with the North Carolina Constitution,” said Judge Robert Hobgood.

About 4,300 families have applied for the annual grants, called Opportunity Scholarships, which will be awarded to about 2,400 students. The majority of applications came from Wake, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Cumberland counties, officials said.

Lawyers representing the state and two parents say they intend to appeal the judge's decision.

"We're disappointed. We think that we're right on the law."

“We’re disappointed, we think that we’re right on the law. We read it as saying, 'yes, they have to support a general, uniformed system of public schools,' but the legislature has the discretion to go beyond that,” said Dick Komer, a lawyer from the Institute for Justice, a law firm representing the parents.

Supporters of the program say they don’t tout private schools as a “better” option. They argue the grants give low-income parents school options they otherwise would not have.

“Rest assured we will not rest, we will not yield until every parent and child from a poor or working-class background has the same educational opportunities that many of their wealthier peers have,” says Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

Allison says he and his organization will continue to fight for the Opportunity Scholarships.

Critics of the law say they have no problem with children wanting to attend private schools, but that it should not come at the expense of public schools. They argue that spending taxpayer dollars on private schools is unconstitutional, particularly because they do not have the academic standards or accountability of public schools.

Two lawsuits challenging the program’s legality were filed by the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Lawyers representing the state say the issue could remain in court for months, if not longer.

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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