News Column

School voucher decision affects 196 Guilford families

August 22, 2014

By Marquita Brown, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Aug. 22--GREENSBORO -- A judge's ruling that state-funded vouchers are unconstitutional means almost 200 local families will lose the public money awarded to them for private school tuition.

For now.

On Thursday in Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh, Judge Robert Hobgood said taxpayer money should not be used to pay for tuition at private or religious schools.

The school voucher program for low-income families pays for students to attend privately run K-12 schools that do not have to meet state curriculum requirements, violating the state constitution, Hobgood said.

"Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose," he said.

Voucher advocates said they plan to appeal.

In June, 196 families in Guilford County learned that they received the vouchers through a lottery, according to the N.C. Education Assistance Authority. That agency was given the task of managing $10 million in government-funded scholarships.

In all, the state received 529 voucher applications from Guilford County.

A teachers' group and many of the state's 115 school boards challenged the voucher program. The Guilford County Board of Education is one of the plaintiffs.

The vouchers took away money that should go toward providing a sound education for students within the public school system, said Alan Duncan, the chairman of the Guilford County school board.

"In that context, we're very grateful to Judge Hobgood for the decision that he made and with which we agree based on the constitutional issues that were raised," Duncan said.

The state Educational Assistance Authority planned to distribute the first $728,000 in tuition money to schools for 363 students on Tuesday. None of that money was given out, said the agency's grants director, Elizabeth McDuffie.

In Guilford County, the amount of vouchers awarded could have been as much as $840,000 if each family received the maximum amount.

Much of that money would likely have gone toward the cost of attending religious schools.

Most applicants across the state identified their top choice of private and parochial schools. Of the local schools picked most often, only Greensboro Day School lacks a religious affiliation.

Some voucher supporters argue that the stipends help families who would otherwise have no educational option other than their local, assigned traditional public school. Some advocates for more educational options describe traditional public schools as "one size fits all."

But Guilford County Schools "has over 50 different choice options for our parents and students," Duncan said.

Hobgood's ruling is a victory for the children of North Carolina, said Mark Jewell, the vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators and a teacher in the Guilford County school system.

"We are on cloud nine," Jewell said.

He also noted the different local options, including magnet schools. Magnet schools are traditional public schools with a specific focus, such as the arts or science.

"You don't make change by taking away resources from a struggling school, by diverting those (resources) into private schools," Jewell said.

Putting public money toward private schools would also raise issues of transparency, he said.

Public schools have certain guidelines about teacher qualifications and curricula, he said. There are set standards and regular assessments to ensure students make academic growth within the school year.

"In a private school, there's no guarantee of that," Jewell said.

"There are huge, glaring problems when you start taking public dollars and directing them to an organization that has no responsibility to report the use of those taxpayer dollars," he said. "And they don't have to take every child."

Hobgood blocked the state voucher program in February until there could be a trial. The N.C. Supreme Court reversed him in May and allowed implementation to go ahead.

In June, the Educational Assistance Authority moved up the date to distribute tuition funding.

Executive Director Steven Brooks said the agency decided distributing the money sooner was better, not that it wanted to get out ahead of the judge's ruling.

The program's supporters hoped an appeal would let the vouchers continue, said Darrell Allison, the president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

"While this court decision might represent a temporary roadblock on the path towards educational freedom in North Carolina, I believe it's just that -- temporary," Allison said in a statement. "We're going to continue to fight for a parent's right to choose the educational setting that works best for their children."

Children seeking the scholarships had to first qualify for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program, which has an income limit of about $44,000 for a family of four. The grants aren't available to students already attending private schools.

The General Assembly set aside $10 million last year to give up to $4,200 each for up to 2,400 students. About 5,550 children applied for the lottery to select the first year's scholarship students. And of those, 4,200 met the criteria to qualify, McDuffie said. Nearly 1,880 lottery-winning families had accepted vouchers by Thursday, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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