NC Supreme Court Finds Segregating School Voucher Program Constitutional

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By a 4-3 vote North Carolina’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling that the education voucher program, which sends public taxpayer dollars to private schools, is unconstitutional. In North Carolina, taxpayer support will now flow freely to schools that are not required to have trained or certified teachers, any identified or minimum curriculum, any accreditation, criminal background checks for employees, and that can discriminate on the basis of religion. Center submitted an amicus curiae brief arguing the program was unconstitutional because it increases segregation in public schools.

The decision was grounded in the determination that despite sending state funds to private entities, the voucher program is somehow consistent with the public purpose doctrine of the state constitution, which requires that with the expenditure of state funds, “the ultimate gain must be the public’s, not that of an individual or private entity. A constitutionally permissible public purpose must involve “a reasonable connection with the [the State’s] convenience and necessity; and . . . benefits the public generally, as opposed to special interests or persons.”

The majority declares that giving public money to “lower-income families so that their children have additional educational opportunities is well within the scope of permissible governmental action and is intimately related to the needs of our state’s citizenry.” Setting aside the obvious disconnect between this purported goal the numerous other recent legislative acts which have made it more difficult for poor children to gain access to quality educational resources, this is an interesting descriptor: “lower-income.” Currently, voucher-eligible families must earn at or below 133% of the income qualification for the free or reduced-price lunch program. But every other voucher program across the country which was initially touted as giving educational opportunity to poor children was quickly expanded to include middle-class families. Immediately in the wake of the court’s ruling, legislative leaders are already talking about raising the eligibility requirements here. But does this language in the majority opinion mean that if the eligibility criteria are expanded, the program would violate public purpose doctrine? And as to benefitting the public generally, while the majority repeatedly touts that promoting educational opportunity is good for our state, it ignores the fact that similar programs elsewhere have led to divestment from the public schools where the vast majority of children (especially poor children) are educated.

As the dissents point out, the overwhelming evidence shows that voucher programs increase racial and socio-economic isolation of students, thereby “exacerbate[ing], rather than alleviat[ing], educational, class, and racial divides.” Nothing in our state’s voucher plan prevents the same result. Moreover, our state’s flawed plan lacks the substantive educational standards that other jurisdictions impose on schools receiving vouchers. “When taxpayer money is used, the total absence of standards cannot be constitutional. Therefore, while students enrolled in private schools may be receiving a fine education, if taxpayer money is spent on a private school education that does not prepare them to function in and to contribute to our state’s society, that spending cannot be for “public purposes only.”

Posted by Elizabeth M. Haddix on Mon. July 27, 2015 2:06 PM
Categories: Amicus Curiae, Education, Segregation
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