North Carolina judge hears lawsuits over private school grants


The law would let parents send their children to private or religious schools with taxpayer money, but critics say the scholarships take money from public schools, and would undermine the education system for everyone else.

The North Carolina Association of Educators and the group representing the state's 115 school boards have filed separate lawsuits challenging the law. They argue the annual grants of up to $4,200 per child for the academic year starting in August amount to "vouchers" that fund a separate education system and violate the state constitution. It says school funding should be used exclusively for running "a uniform system of free public schools."

The North Carolina School Boards Association also said the law fails to require private schools to meet any meaningful educational standards and would allow the money to be used at schools that don't discriminate in their admissions.

But parents who support the law say it's a good idea.

"I just believe that children, especially my child, should have the right to the education that I didn't have and to a better education to make her a better young adult. I am all for this program, I believe it will work for my child," offered parent Cynthia Perry.

State attorneys and a libertarian legal defense group that wants to represent parents eager for the program argue the first of what are officially called opportunity scholarships should be awarded as scheduled on March 1.

The libertarian Institute for Justice is representing two parents who have applied for scholarships for their children and want to join the lawsuit on the side of state attorneys working to preserve it.

"Despite plaintiffs' efforts to cast this program as one created for the benefit of unaccountable private schools, this case is really about the plaintiffs' efforts to force the parents' children to remain in public schools with which the parents are dissatisfied," the institute's lawyers wrote in court documents filed last week.

The program will provide scholarships to as many as 2,400 children. Applications for the program began earlier this month.

Supporters say besides giving parents more control over their child's education, the scholarship grants save money because private school tuition is typically less than the per-pupil cost at public schools. At an average $8,400 cost to educate a student in public schools, state budget-writers this year estimated $11.8 million in savings resulting from lower school enrollment.

In court Monday, the judge denied a motion to dismiss the cases. He'll hear a plaintiff's motion on Friday for a preliminary injunction that would block the scholarships from being distributed until the case is resolved.

Associated Press reporter Emery P. Dalesio contributed to this story.

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