School Vouchers on Hold: NC Judge Blocks New Law
By EMERY P. DALESIO, Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A judge blocked a new law Friday that would have allowed taxpayer money to go for tuition at private or religious schools, days before a lottery to determine its first 2,400 students.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that awarding annual grants of up to $4,200 a year per student should be stopped until the issues raised in two lawsuits could be fully considered at a trial.
A lawyer representing two parents who want the grants said he plans to appeal. Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, who has championed the grants program, said he would seek legislative action this summer to resolve the judge's concerns and restore the program.
Hobgood issued a preliminary injunction stopping the grants after more than five hours of hearings over two days. He said he found action was necessary because of the state constitution's requirement that taxpayer funding for primary and secondary schools should be used exclusively for running "a uniform system of free public schools."
Lawyers for two dozen taxpayers and groups representing teachers and many of the state's 115 school boards had challenged whether it was constitutional for the state to spend public money at private or religious schools, even if that's what parents wanted.
"What we've never had, never, until now is the transfer of state, public funds to primary and secondary private schools," said lawyer Burton Craige, who represented taxpayers and the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Lawyers for the state and a libertarian legal defense group argued that the grants opponents call "vouchers" and the law labels "opportunity scholarships" were sought by more than 4,000 families who wanted help affording a new educational choice.
The program represents "a way out for families who have become unhappy with the public schools and a way for them to access a school they believe will better fit the needs of their children," said Richard Komer of the Arlington, Va. -based Institute for Justice.
The grants scheduled to start in the next academic year were available to families whose children qualified for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program, which has an income limit of about $44,000 for a family of four. The grants weren't available to students already attending private schools.
As of Tuesday, more than half the applications for grants had come from the state's largest urban counties — Mecklenburg, Wake, Cumberland and Guilford — according to the North Carolina State Educational Assistance Authority, which is responsible for implementing the program. Almost three-quarters of the applicants described themselves as belonging to a minority group, an authority employee said in a sworn statement to the court.
Applicants were asked to identify the private school their child would attend, if that was known. About two-thirds of applications named a school. The top responses were religious schools: Greensboro Islamic Academy, Victory Christian Center School in Charlotte, Al-Inman School in Raleigh and Fayetteville Christian School.