The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is constitutional on July 23, reversing a ruling by Wake County Superior Court.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program, enacted in 2013, provides scholarships of up to $4,200 per year to low-income families to send their children to the school of their choice.
Dick Komer, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice (IJ), served as lead counsel for two families and litigated on behalf of those who wanted to use OSP, told School Reform News the continuation of this choice program is a victory for all students.
“The decision is important for all of the schoolchildren in North Carolina, because by allowing low-income families to attend private schools, the public schools will be forced to take those low-income students’ needs more seriously,” said Komer. “It is a win-win both for the students who leave the public schools for private schools and for those who remain in the public schools.”
In 2014, Judge Robert Hobgood put the program on hold and then ruled it unconstitutional. The families represented by IJ appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals, which allowed the program to continue while the cases were under consideration. The state Supreme Court, in a somewhat surprising move, took the cases before the Court of Appeals heard them. The Supreme Court decided the North Carolina constitution “specifically envisions that children in our state may be educated by means outside of the public school system.”
North Carolina taxpayers aligned with the North Carolina Teacher’s Association, the North Carolina School Board Association, and 70 school boards brought forth the lawsuit against the school choice program, according to Renée Flaherty, an attorney for IJ. The plaintiffs argued the Opportunity Scholarship Program takes money directly from public schools, that no taxpayer money should ever go to private schools, and the program allegedly did not serve a public purpose.
Komer says during nearly two years of litigation, he had to argue against ridiculous claims based on the same attacks teachers unions and other school choice opponents regularly use against school choice programs.
“Fortunately, the Supreme Court recognized that the constitutional theories of the opponents were completely specious,” said Komer. “Of course education of all students is a public purpose, and the state constitution does not limit this to public education exclusively.”
In practical terms, the court’s decision “means that schools cannot continue to take low-income students for granted,” Flaherty said.
The program could at least double in size in the fall and continue to grow. State officials have already awarded 2,642 scholarships for the 2015–16 school year, compared to 1,216 during the 2014–15 school year, and OSP could issue more than 1,700 additional vouchers once the state budget is signed into law during the 2015–16 school year.
IJ client Cynthia Perry says she will be sending her daughter Faith to a private school using a scholarship from OSP.
“I’m delighted,” said Perry. “I just think it’s a wonderful thing that parents do have a choice. Every child is different, and I don’t think the county schools are meeting the needs of students with special needs.”
Perry says she thinks the smaller class size will help her nine-year-old, who has been diagnosed with ADHD. Faith has had to attend summer school every year since 1st grade while attending traditional public schools, according to Perry.
Faith has been unable to make progress in reading comprehension, Perry says.
“Even with all the extra stuff we do at home, she’s still struggling,” Perry said.
Seeking Better Values
Perry says she thinks the private school setting will also align better with the Christian principles she tries to instill in her daughter.
“No matter what you teach at home, there is so much to be picked up in the public schools, including things that are not so good for your children,” Perry said.
Perry says she hopes other parents in North Carolina will apply for the Opportunity Scholarship Program and parents in other states will fight for similar programs.
“I think it’s important because every child should have an opportunity,” said Perry. “Just because parents can’t afford a private school doesn’t mean that the child should be held back.”
Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.
Image by Reputation Management.
T. Keung Hui, “N.C. Voucher Program Expected to Double Following Court Ruling,” Education Week, July 28, 2015: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/07/28/nc-voucher-program-expected-to-double-following.html?cmp=soc-edit-tw