People in North Carolina have been living with – and resisting – a devastating right-wing assault on public institutions and the common good since a far-right takeover of state government in 2012, which was funded by Art Pope, a local businessman who became the state’s budget director.
Part of the right-wing assault has been on public schools and teachers. The 2013 state budget included $10 million for “Opportunity Scholarships” that would be sent to mostly unaccountable and mostly religious private schools. But today a state judge ruled that state lawmakers’ school voucher plan violates the North Carolina constitution.
In a stunning rebuke to state lawmakers’ efforts to bring school vouchers to North Carolina, Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood today found the recently-enacted “Opportunity Scholarship Program” unconstitutional and permanently enjoined disbursement of state funds for that purpose.
“The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” Hobgood said.
In his ruling, issued this morning from the bench, the judge broke down the program and detailed the many reasons why it failed constitutional muster:
This legislation unconstitutionally
1) appropriates to private schools grades K-12, by use of funds which apparently have gone to the university system budget but which should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining the uniform system of free public schools;
2) appropriates education funds in a manner that does not accomplish a public purpose;
3) appropriates educational funds outside the supervision and administration of the state board of education;
4) creates a non-uniform system of education;
5) appropriates taxpayer funds to educational institutions that have no standards, curriculum and requirements for teachers and principals to be certified;
6) fails to guard and maintain the rights of the people who privilege the education by siphoning money from the public schools in favor of private schools; and
7) allows funding of non-public schools that discriminate on account of religion.
NC Policy Watch reports that Judge Hobgood had issued a preliminary injunction against the program in February, but parents backed by the Koch-brothers-funded Institute for Justice appealed that order and the state Supreme Court overturned the injunction in May. But in today’s ruling, “Hobgood recognized the state’s obligation to provide a ‘sound basic education’ to the children attending public schools in North Carolina as mandated by the [state] Supreme Court in its Leandro decision .”
“The General Assembly cannot constitutionally delegate this responsibility to unregulated private schools by use of taxpayer opportunity scholarships to low income parents who have self-assessed their children to be at risk,” he said.
Hobgood noted that the private schools receiving the scholarships are not subject to any requirements or standards regarding the curriculum that they teach, have no requirements for student achievement, are not obligated to demonstrate any growth in student performance and are not even obligated to provide a minimum amount of instructional time.
The Judge also wrote, “It appears to this court that the General Assembly is seeking to push at-risk students from low income families into non-public schools in order to avoid the cost of providing them a sound basic education in public school as mandated by the Leandro decision.”
And he rejected the budgetary sleight-of-hand engaged in by legislators to try to make the program pass constitutional muster:
The judge also made clear that he was not buying lawmakers’ argument that state funds were not funding the program.
This summer, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam pushed through an amendment to the voucher law that pulled $10 million out of the state’s General Fund to pay for the program. That budgetary maneuver allowed Stam to then readjust the public school budget back to what it would have been had school vouchers never existed.
As amended the voucher law stated that “scholarship grant funds awarded . . . to eligible students attending a non-public school shall not be considered funding from the state of North Carolina.”
Nowhere in the state’s General Statutes is there any provision for scholarship grants to come from any source other than taxpayer funds, Hobgood noted.
“If scholarship grants shall not be considered funding from the state of North Carolina, this court is at a complete loss to understand the source of those funds,” he said.
“Follow the money,” the judge added. “The clear legislative intent is to utilize taxpayer money to fund private schools.”