February 24, 2015

North Carolina Supreme Court to decide constitutionality of vouchers

By Meriem L. Hubbard Senior Attorney

Today the North Carolina Supreme Court heard argument in two cases that are of vital interest to approximately 1,800 of the state’s school children. The lawsuits target the school voucher program that has given these low-income kids new hope by allowing them to enroll in private schools.  PLF attorneys filed an amicus brief, with assistance from local counsel Matthew Tilley, with the law firm of Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson.

Enacted by the Legislature in 2013, North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program provides tuition assistance of up to $4,200 for poor families who would like an alternative to traditional public schools. Along with the more than 1,800 kids who’ve already received scholarships, everyone who values educational quality — in both public and private schools — should hope the state Supreme Court rejects the legal challenges.

Filed by plaintiffs with a stake in the status quo — including members of teachers unions — the lawsuits include a grab bag of arguments that misinterpret various provisions of the North Carolina Constitution. For instance, they assert that it prohibits the Legislature from creating any educational program other than public schools. You can read the constitution forward and backward, and you’ll find no such restriction. To the contrary, the constitution charges the state to “guard and maintain” the “right to the privilege of education” generally, making it clear that education can be provided by public schools and “by other means.”

The educational establishment claims voucher programs undermine public schools. Years of empirical studies, in states across the country, tell a different story. They show that, by instilling competition, school choice programs — including voucher plans — prod public schools to be better.  At least 21 other states have enacted some form of a tuition assistance program. The North Carolina Legislature adopted the Opportunity Scholarship Program after studying these initiatives and their successes. The goal was to equalize educational opportunity by providing alternatives for children from economically challenged families.

Evidence of the need for educational reform in North Carolina is irrefutable. In the 2012-13 school year, less than a third of public school students passed the state’s end-of-grade tests. For poor and minority kids, pass rates were even lower: 14.3 percent for African-Americans, 19.3 percent for Hispanics, and 17.4 percent for economically disadvantaged students in general.

Even more compelling are the personal stories, as related by organizations that are going to bat for the kids and families who need this program desperately. For instance, Wake Forest resident Cynthia Perry and her daughter, Faith, intervened in the lawsuit, to support the scholarship program, so that Faith can attend a better school. Faith has had trouble with reading comprehension and has already had to attend summer school twice. Her mother fears that Faith will once again slip through the cracks in public school and will have to repeat the third grade.

Cynthia is a single mother who cannot afford the full cost of a private school for Faith. That’s why she sees the Opportunity Scholarship Program – which is open to families who are eligible for the school lunch program – as a lifeline.  She has intervened in the litigation because she wants to “get this program up and running now.”  She is represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest group based in Arlington, Virginia.

Then there’s Khaliah Ellison, a single mother of three in Charlotte. As reported by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, she has always dreamed of being able to send her children to a private school. Her middle child, Mekhi, did not do well in public schools because there were so many students in his classrooms that he didn’t get the attention he needed.

Fortunately, Khaliah’s dreams came true when Mekhi was awarded a scholarship under the Opportunity Scholarship Program to attend a private school. “I thought with a few part-time jobs, I could possibly send him to private school someday in the future,” as the Friedman Foundation quotes her. “I knew with prayer it may happen someday, but I never thought it would happen this quick.”

High income families are already able to send their children to private schools if they think those schools are better, or if their kids aren’t thriving in public school. Now North Carolina’s Legislature has acted to provide low-income parents with a similar option.

The future of this promising program – and of the kids who are benefitting from it – is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court.  Hopefully, the justices recognize that school choice doesn’t conflict with the state constitution’s mandate for quality education; on the contrary, it serves and promotes that goal.

What to read next