Monday, August 17, 2015

North Carolina Voucher Program Survives Constitutional Challenge, Court Reasons the Special Funding for the Program Exempts It from Scrutiny

Earlier this summer in Hart v. State, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program, a school voucher program that pays tuition for eligible students to attend private schools using taxpayer dollars.  Plaintiffs alleged that the Opportunity Scholarship Program violates the North Carolina Constitution by allocating taxpayer money to private schools; appropriating taxpayer money to private schools without the Board of Education supervising those funds; and creating a “non-uniform system of schools.”  Plaintiffs also alleged the program was unconstitutional because eliminating accountability and permitting schools receiving voucher students to discriminate based on religion served no public purpose.

The court was not swayed by the diversion of public funds argument, reasoning that the “purpose of this [constitutional proscription on education spending] is to protect the ‘State school fund’ in order to preserve and support the public school system, not to limit the State’s ability to spend on education generally.” The voucher funds were from general revenues, not from the education fund protected by the constitution.    Also, because these funds were for education related activities, rather than the public education system itself, it posed no concerns under the uniformity clause.

As to the public purpose challenge, the Court reasoned that even though these scholarships are only available to low income students and they are for use at private schools, the benefit of giving these educational opportunities to low income students is for “our collective citizenry,” and accordingly, for a public purpose under the constitution.

The court dismissed the religious discrimination claim because plaintiffs did not suffered any injury due to the fact that they do not belong to the class of persons that would be affected by the alleged discrimination.  In sum, the Court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to show that the Opportunity Scholarship Program “plainly and clearly violates our constitution,” and that the remedy sought by the plaintiffs lies with the legislature, not the courts.

More background on the program and case here.

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