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School choice opponents sue to stop Opportunity Scholarships

(The following report was adapted from an article by Calley Mangum of the North Carolina Family Policy Council.)

Seven North Carolina parents, in conjunction with the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and the National Education Association (NEA), are suing in an attempt to abolish the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

On July 27, the parents filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program that is used by more than 12,000 lower-income parents across the state to send their children to the school of their choice.

Established by the General Assembly in 2014, the Opportunity Scholarship Program provides “tuition assistance up to $4,200 per year for awarded students who enroll in a participating nonpublic school.”

The scholarships are awarded based on financial need, and in the 2019-20 school year, 12,284 students received an Opportunity Scholarship. Total value of vouchers was $48.1 million, and there were 456 nonpublic schools participating.

Two of last year’s students were residents of Tyrrell County. Enrollments from nearby counties were: Chowan 18, Dare 4, Hyde 4, Washington 29.

There were also two Tyrrell residents enrolled during the 2018-19 school year. Nearby county enrollments were: Chowan 10, Dare 4, Hyde 5, Washington 24. In 2018-19 there were 9.651 students attending 405 participating nonpublic schools, and the value of the scholarships amounted to $37.9 million statewide.

But the Opportunity Scholarship Program has long been the target of criticism by school choice opponents. Two lawsuits were filed in 2015 to block the program before it went into effect. (The NCAE was involved in this suit as well). A Superior Court judge ruled the program unconstitutional, but in July 2015, the NC Supreme Court overturned that ruling 4-3, and the program was allowed to proceed.

In a news release from the NCAE supporting the lawsuit, president Tamika Walker Kelly — who is one of the plaintiffs — argued, “Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools and on our state constitution.”

The news release and the lawsuit particularly take aim at religious schools, accusing them of “[focusing] exclusively on inculcating religious beliefs,” and “[discriminating] on the basis of sexual orientation” and “against LGBTQ students and educators.”

On the other hand, Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said, “Voucher opponents hope that our left-leaning state Supreme Court will do what the court wouldn’t in 2015 — use an elastic interpretation of the state constitution to eliminate the state’s private school scholarship program for low-income children.”

The makeup of the NC Supreme Court is very different now than it was in 2015. Current state Supreme Court Justices Beasley, Hudson, and Ervin were the three dissenters in the 2015 ruling. The only justice still remaining who ruled in favor of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2015 is Justice Paul Newby, who is currently the sole conservative justice on the court.