The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled last week that the state can award publicly funded vouchers to send low-income students to private schools, the Charlotte Observer reports.
The state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which gives low-income families up to $4,200 for each kid who switches from a public school to a private school, was challenged by the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association, with several local school boards joining the challenge. The National Association of School Boards supported the challenge as well:
— NSBA | School Boards (@NSBAComm) July 24, 2015
The voucher money goes mostly to schools affiliated with religious organizations, including the Greensboro Islamic Academy, which has received more voucher money than any other entity. The funds could also be directed from the public coffers to home-based schools, which are not subject to the same accountability and transparency standards as public schools are.
In a blog post in February, education historian Diane Ravitch seems to disagree with the North Carolina Supreme Court: “The state Constitution says unequivocally that public dollars are to be (used) exclusively for public schools,” she writes. “The Legislature could try to change the Constitution but they decided instead that it doesn’t mean what it says. The Legislature has appropriated $10 million of public money that may be spent in private and religious schools.”
Ms Ravitch and the North Carolina Supreme Court seem to be reading two different state constitutions. Here’s the relevant section from the state’s constitution in Article IX, Section 6:
The proceeds of all lands that have been or hereafter may be granted by the United States to this State, and not otherwise appropriated by this State or the United States; all moneys, stocks, bonds, and other property belonging to the State for purposes of public education; the net proceeds of all sales of the swamp lands belonging to the State; and all other grants, gifts, and devises that have been or hereafter may be made to the State, and not otherwise appropriated by the State or by the terms of the grant, gift, or devise, shall be paid into the State Treasury and, together with so much of the revenue of the State as may be set apart for that purpose, shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools…
Although Ms Ravtich has read this section to mean the state can only send money to public schools, that’s not exactly what it says. The decision is bad for public schools, because in the end, moneys allocated for education come from the same treasury as moneys allocated for roads or nonpublic schools. But making our laws “wise” is the responsibility of the legislative branch, not the judicial branch. So technically, we support the North Carolina Supreme Court’s reading of the constitution in this section. All respondents have to show is that the money was never brought in “for the purposes of public education.” That’s an easy burden of proof.
However, the interpretation of this clause does not, in my opinion, nullify the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which says the government can’t establish a state religion. The schools that receive money from North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program are predominantly religious schools, as shown above.
That may be what saves the program, though, as the government doesn’t favor any one religion over any other, and it could therefore be argued, on constitutional grounds, that the program is completely constitutional. In the future, challenges to this program should be better organized if they have any chance of success, and they should focus on the executive or legislative branches of our state governments, not on the judicial branch. Lesson learned.
At least one pro-voucher group was pleased with the decision. “We are thankful to the Justices of the North Carolina State Supreme Court for believing that any program which helps ensure all children have access to a sound, basic education is serving a public purpose,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “We applaud them for recognizing that education is ultimately a personal right belonging to our citizens, not a governmental agency or system.”