RALEIGH – The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed a lower-court decision and backed the state’s popular voucher program for lower-income students Thursday. Only a small portion of the state’s students can participate in the program currently, and the $4,200 annual maximum scholarships received more than twice as many applicants as there were spots available.
The state’s high court reversed the lower court, which ruled for the plaintiffs in August 2014, but stressed that the judicial branch was the wrong place to argue the effectiveness of the program.“To the extent that plaintiffs disagree with the General Assembly’s educational policy decision as expressed in the Opportunity Scholarship Progr
am, their remedy is with the legislature, not the courts,” wrote Chief Justice Mark Martin.
Martin also wrote that the public good was the education provided to its citizens, not the money provided to the private schools. “[T]he ultimate beneficiary of providing these children additional educational opportunities is our collective citizenry,” Martin wrote, not the schools or even the low-income students who attend them.
Both sides of the policy debate marshaled forces for the constitutional challenge, as both sides saw the program expanding if it were allowed to continue. Both the House and Senate budgets increase the funding for vouchers, and legislative leaders were quick to applaud the decision.
“Today the Supreme Court reaffirmed that education in North Carolina is about our children and their future,” Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said in a statement. “This ruling makes clear that parents — not education bureaucrats or politicians — ought to be able to choose the educational pathway best suited to their children’s needs, and it empowers thousands of low-income families across the state to make that important choice.”
Yevonne Brannon of Public Schools First NC, an anti-voucher group, said it was a sad day for the state. “Our long-standing tradition of commitment to excellence in public education has made North Carolina a jewel among southern states. We cannot fathom how this decision upholds the constitutional promise that all children receive a sound, basic education within the public school system. And we are deeply concerned as strong public schools are critical for growing our economy and maintaining the vitality of our communities.”
The decision was 4-3, with Justice Robin Hudson writing the dissenting opinion, saying that the voucher program violates the state constitution because it “provides for the spending of taxpayer money on private schools without incorporating any standards for determining whether students receive a sound basic—or indeed, any—education.”
Governor McCrory cheered the decision, saying in a statement that the decision was “a victory for every parent whose child is being underserved in North Carolina. This is a victory for choice, and it’s a victory for North Carolina students and their families.”