January 29, 2016

A win for school choice in North Carolina

By Meriem L. Hubbard Senior Attorney

In 2013, North Carolina’s General Assembly held extensive hearings on legislation designed to equalize educational opportunities for low-income students.  The Opportunity Scholarship Program, would provide scholarships from the State to attend any private school, including those operated by religious organizations.

Legislators were shocked and embarrassed by statistics presented at the hearings. Statewide, the passage rate on end-of-grade tests for the 2012-13 school year for all students was a shockingly low 32%.  The passage rate was even worse, however, for economically disadvantaged students (17.4%), African-American students (14.2%), and students with disabilities (6.6%).  The 2012-13 school year was not an aberration. Statistics showed a thirty-percent gap in passage rates between economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged students on end-of-grade tests in 2011-12.

Better options for low-income students were badly needed, but it was clear that increased funding of public schools was not the answer.  A review of 116 empirical studies regarding per-pupil spending and student performance found that the vast majority of the studies–sixty-seven percent–found no link between higher spending and increased student performance.

Legislators knew that they had to come up with a better system to ensure equal educational opportunity for students of all racial, social, and economic backgrounds. After much debate, the General Assembly adopted the Opportunity Scholarship Program and it was approved by the governor.  North Carolina had joined at least twenty-one other states with some form of tuition assistance program.

Not surprising, the State’s educational establishment sued to put a stop to the state-sponsored scholarships, arguing that the Program violates numerous provisions of the State Constitution.  The trial court agreed; it ruled that the scholarships were unconstitutional.  But the State Supreme Court intervened, taking jurisdiction of the case on appeal and allowing the Program to be implemented while the litigation was pending.  Last summer, the high court upheld the Program in its entirety.

Now 2,522 students and 263 schools participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Legislators had predicted that parents would be willing to try alternative educational systems to find the one that works best for their children.  It appears they were right.

Pacific Legal Foundation attorneys filed an amicus brief in the State Supreme Court in support of the Program.

 

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