Supreme Court of North Carolina rejects teachers’ union challenge to school choice

July 24, 2015 | By WENCONG FA

The North Carolina legislature recently enacted the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools of their parents’ choice through state-funded scholarships. The program provides students with an opportunity to escape failing public schools, and transfer to private schools tailored to their needs. But the teachers’ union, hungry to maintain its monopoly on education, brought a lawsuit to prevent students from having that opportunity. PLF sided with the students in a brief filed last December. On Thursday, the Supreme Court of North Carolina did the same in this opinion.

In Hart v. North Carolina and Richardson v. North Carolina, the Court dismantled the teachers’ union’s arguments one by one. First, the Court held that North Carolina’s duty to protect the “State school fund” did not limit the State’s ability to spend on education generally. Rather, history suggests that the requirement—ratified in 1868—was adopted to prevent the legislature from diverting educational resources to pay for expenses incurred in the Civil War. Second, the Court added that the constitutional requirement directing the State to establish and maintain “a uniform system of free public schools” has nothing to do with private schools. Third, the Court noted that money spend on the Opportunity Scholarship Program was for a public purpose, because the “promotion of education generally, and educational opportunity in particular, is of paramount public importance.” Fourth, the Court explained that there “is no merit in the argument that a legislative program designed to increase educational opportunity in [North Carolina] is one that fails to ‘guard and maintain’ the ‘right to the privilege of education.’ ” Finally, the Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ religious discrimination claim, observing that the teachers’ union had no standing to assert such claims on behalf of the students.

Notably, the Court cited the famous dissent by Justice Brandeis in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, which underlined the need for states to serve as laboratories of democracy and experiment with new legislation in order to meet changing social and economic needs. This echoes PLF’s brief, which quoting the same case, emphasized that if “the states are to serve as the ‘laboratories’ of democracy, then the State Constitution should not prevent North Carolina from copying promising aspects of the most successful experiments in other jurisdictions.” School choice programs have been tremendously successful in other states. This decision allows that trend to continue in North Carolina.

Congratulations to our good friends at the Institute for Justice, who represented the parents in this case.