RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The state Supreme Court is about to decide whether millions of dollars in taxpayer money that started flowing this year to pay student tuition at private and religious schools continues for a second year.
The state's highest court hears arguments Tuesday on a ruling last summer that the Opportunity Scholarships program violates the state constitution because religious schools can discriminate based on faith. Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood also said privately run K-12 schools are not required to meet state curriculum standards.
The judge is ordering a stop to the use of taxpayer money to pay for tuition at private or religious schools.
Supreme Court justices showed they're in a hurry to decide whether private school vouchers will continue by latching on to the case early. Parents are already looking ahead and the deadline for them to submit scholarship applications for the next academic year is March 1.
So far, more than $4.2 million has paid for 1,200 students to attend 216 private schools around the state, according to the State Education Assistance Authority. That's a fraction of the 5,500 students whose families sought one of the scholarships, said Darrell Allison, who heads a group that advocates for expanding the program. Three out of four applicants for the vouchers, which pay private schools up to $4,200 per child per year to schools that admit them, were minority students.
"There are literally thousands of families who are looking forward to their day in court — desperately hopeful for a favorable ruling," Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in a statement.
The program opened this year to families whose income qualified their children for free or discounted school lunches, a ceiling of about $44,000 for a family of four. Eligibility increases for the year starting in August as the ceiling rises to nearly $59,000 per family.
Opponents of the voucher law complain that it violates the constitution because money from collected taxes goes to religious schools that have the option of ruling out students who don't follow their faith's beliefs, turning away the disabled or refusing the children of gay parents.
Three-quarters of the schools accepting voucher students identify a religious creed. Twenty-six of the 28 schools enrolling at least 10 students are Christian or Muslim.
"The voucher program diverts taxpayer funds from the public schools to exclusionary, unaccountable private schools," attorneys for voucher opponents said in court filings. "It funds schools that need not employ qualified teachers nor offer students anything recognizable as an education, and that are free to deny admission to children with disabilities."
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State attorneys defending the program said its language neither favors nor disadvantages any faith. Private schools are scrutinized by the military and universities who won't take uneducated graduates, state attorneys said, but parents are the ultimate regulators since they're free to exit schools that fail to teach.
"These schools meet different parent and pupil demands than do the public schools, and are not meant to be 'carbon copies' of the public schools," state attorneys said.
That difference made all the difference to Cary parent Brian Lewis, who until two years ago was a leading spokesman for public schools and the teachers who work in them.
When Lewis' daughter entered middle school, she did poorly and began dreading each day, he said. A non-sectarian private school brought his daughter back to life, the former lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of Educators said.
Lewis accepted serious belt-tightening to afford the private school, but what about poorer families with children in the same boat, Lewis wondered. He now supports the voucher program, but is conflicted about it.
Lewis said he's uncomfortable about tax money going to schools that can discriminate which children to accept or reject. He also disagrees with conservative Christian schools being able to teach the biblical view that evolution is a farce and the world is only a few thousand years old.
"The system that we have is imperfect," Lewis said. "I know the courts are going to sort this out."