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NC Public School Advocates File New Lawsuit Challenging School Vouchers

Liz Schlemmer
File photo of students and parents celebrating National School Choice Week.

Five years after the state Supreme Court declared North Carolina's largest private school voucher program constitutional, public school advocates have filed another lawsuit challenging Opportunity Scholarships.

Seven parents have signed on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Monday, including the current president and recent vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

NCAE, an advocacy group representing public school teachers, filed a similar lawsuit back in 2013 shortly after the Opportunity Scholarship program was passed into law. That case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the voucher program in 2015.

Then in 2017, Governor Roy Cooper filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to block a law that required him to continually increase voucher funding in the state's base budget.

This time, public school advocates are hoping for a different outcome.

The Arguments Haven't Changed ...

Tamika Walker Kelly took office as president of NCAE earlier this month, and is a plaintiff in the case. She said the arguments against vouchers haven't changed much over the years.

"Our public schools are already underfunded, and so using taxpayer money to continue to fund private school vouchers, it's a waste," Walker Kelly said.

School choice supporters argue the vouchers actually save North Carolina tax dollars, because each scholarship costs less than the state typically spends per student in public schools. However, some eligible students with disabilities can apply to receive funds from all three of North Carolina's school choice programs.

NCAE's 2013 lawsuit weighed heavily on the argument that private school vouchers do not fall under the state's duty to provide a quote "uniform system of free public schools," as guaranteed in the North Carolina Constitution. The group won in Superior Court, but lost when the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The focus of the lawsuit filed Monday is the claim that vouchers infringe on religious freedom. The plaintiffs argue that although they financially support North Carolina's voucher program as taxpayers, their children could be denied admission to publicly-supported private schools based on their family's religious beliefs or identity.

Both the 2013 and 2020 lawsuits claim private schools receiving vouchers lack accountability, because they aren't required to abide by the same laws and standards as public schools.

... But the Environment Has

The organization Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina is the primary advocate for North Carolina's school choice programs. In a press release, PEFNC called the latest lawsuit "out-of-touch" with national trends.

"They filed the lawsuit less than one month after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding school choice across the land,” said PEFNC President Mike Long.

In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of tax credit scholarships to pay for tuition at religious schools in Montana.

But another thing has changed since the last challenge to the Opportunity Scholarship program -- the makeup of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which now leans Democratic.

NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said she's hopeful the new North Carolina Supreme Court will look more favorably on their case than last time.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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