By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
December 12, 2013
RALEIGH — The General Assembly’s efforts to give low-income parents more options when it comes to their children’s education have landed the state in court as some two dozen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging North Carolina’s new Opportunity Scholarships and calling for an injunction before the first grant is awarded.
Attorneys for the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina Justice Center filed the 17-page complaint in Wake County Superior Court claiming that the scholarships — grants of $4,200 a year to those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — violate a section of the state constitution requiring that certain funds be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
“The North Carolina Constitution could not be more explicit,” said Melinda Lawrence, executive director of the N.C. Justice Center. “Public monies are to be used only for free public schools. Period. That is the heart of our legal challenge.”
But Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake), who was the architect of the scholarship measure, said the referenced constitutional provision “only applies to money appropriated to public schools. These funds were not.”
Aside from public school funds, lawmakers budgeted some $10 million for the scholarships’ first year, during which an estimated 2,400 students would qualify.
According to an analysis by the Legislature’s Fiscal Research Division, “In general the State saves money for each public school student who transfers to a private school as a result of receiving the Program scholarship. The State saves the difference between the average public school expenditure per student ($4,827 in FY 2014-15) and the scholarship amount ($3,990), for total savings of $837 per student for each student who uses the scholarship to transfer from a public school to a private school.”
State budget writers anticipate some $11.8 million in savings as a result of decreasing school enrollment. More importantly, the grants give parents of underprivileged students more choices for their education.
“This lawsuit is nothing more than a desperate attempt by opponents of parent choice to cling to an unacceptable status quo for low income students to stay in schools that are simply not working for them,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Education Freedom in North Carolina. “Our recent statewide report card from our very own NC Department of Public Instruction justifies why The Opportunity Scholarship Program must be launched in 2014. According to their ‘own’ report, nearly 70 percent of low income students in North Carolina failed to meet proficiency standards.”
He said the scholarship program is not meant to supplant traditional public schools, but that North Carolina courts have already ruled that nothing prevents the state from creating additional opportunities outside of the public school system.
“Can anyone justifiably argue that real alternatives are not desperately needed for our poorest of children, where only 29 percent of them are at grade level?” Allison asked.
But former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, insisted that the true motive of sponsors of the legislation is to build a generalized system of vouchers for the middle class and beyond.
“This puts taxpayers in the position of funding private education for the few and I think that’s a misuse of tax dollars,” he said. “That’s not what taxpayers want.”
In fact, according to a Civitas Institute poll released in March, nearly two thirds of voters support the idea of Opportunity Scholarships, and nearly half of respondents said they would select a school other than a public school to get the best education for their child.
Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) issued a joint statement in response to the lawsuit Wednesday.
“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,” the statement said.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the scholarships are no panacea to education problems, but they are a step in the right direction because they give families a chance to choose a school that can meet their child’s needs.
“We have to ask ourselves if our tax dollars should fund ‘schools’ or if they should fund ‘education’?” said Dr. Creech. “If its about funding a child’s education, then the dollars should follow the child, resulting in more choice.”
Unless an injunction is issued, the scholarships will be available for the 2014-2015 school year with the application period set to begin Feb. 1, 2014.