Thursday, December 12, 2013
Will the Word “Exclusively” in the State Constitution Make a Difference in N.C. Suit to Stop Vouchers?
In a lawsuit filed yesterday in Wake County, North Carolina, plaintiffs are relying on the word “exclusively” to argue that private school voucher funding is unconstitutional in North Carolina. This summer, North Carolina became one of thirteen states to offer tuition tax credit vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools. Before 2013, the state had never appropriated public funds directly for private school education. (Readers may remember the voucher law’s controversial passage—the provision was buried in a huge budget bill that passed in the wee hours of the session—that helped spark Moral Mondays demonstrations.) Unlike its sister states, however, the North Carolina constitution provides that public education funds are to be "used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools." That language is not just verbiage, argue the 25 plaintiffs, who are an interesting mix of a former state education superintendent, parents, teachers, the daughter of Julius Chambers, and a prominent Republican county chairperson. The N.C. Constitution gives an express right to education and requires the General Assembly to provide “for a general and uniform system of free public schools.” The Constitution then provides that that education revenue “shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.” That language means, the plaintiffs allege, that the state cannot transfer taxpayer dollars from public schools to any institutions outside of the public school system. The plaintiffs also object to the lack of oversight and restrictions on private schools, stating in the complaint that “[t]he Voucher Legislation does not include any enforcement or accountability provisions to ensure that institutions receiving vouchers do not exclude minority students, disabled students, or students from poor families.” If the voucher law is upheld, eligible students could receive up to $4,200 starting next August to attend private or religious schools. The lawsuit is being sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and the North Carolina Justice Center. Read the complaint here.