RALEIGH -- A divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of a Republican-backed program that spends taxpayer money on tuition for students at private and religious schools.
The 4-3 decision split North Carolina's highest court along ideological lines, reversing a lower court ruling declaring the state's Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Mark Martin wrote in the majority opinion that taxpayers who challenged the program failed to show they suffered harm, adding that it's not the court's responsibility to determine whether such tuition vouchers are a good idea.
"Our state and country benefit from the debate between those with differing viewpoints in this quintessentially political dialogue. Such discussions inform the legislative process," wrote Martin, who was joined by the court's other three Republican justices. "But the role of judges is distinguishable, as we neither participate in this dialogue nor assess the wisdom of legislation. Just as the legislative and executive branches of government are expected to operate within their constitutionally defined spheres, so must the courts."
Last year, the program distributed more than $4.6 million for 1,216 students from low-income families to attend 224 private schools. At least three-quarters of the schools identify a religious creed.
Supporters of the program tout that almost three-quarters of the students who received scholarships were minorities.
"Today the Supreme Court reaffirmed that education in North Carolina is about our children and their future," said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who backed the law creating the program. "This ruling makes clear that parents - not education bureaucrats or politicians - ought to be able to choose the educational pathway best suited to their children's needs, and it empowers thousands of low-income families across the state to make that important choice."
About 20 states help students attend religious and other private schools with vouchers, tax credits or both, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In a pair of dissents, the court's three Democrats said the scholarships violated a constitutional edict that public funds can be spent only for public purposes. They also agreed with an earlier ruling by Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood that the program was unconstitutional because religious schools can enroll or reject children based on their faith.
Critics also point out that the program doesn't require private K-12 schools to meet state teaching standards. Teachers at voucher schools aren't required to have a high school diploma, criminal background checks aren't mandatory, and schools may focus instruction on Bible or Quran texts.
"Today is a sad day for any North Carolinian who cares about public education," said Christine Bischoff, a staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center. "Allowing public funds to go to private schools will directly harm our already underfunded schools - and the children of North Carolina who rely on them."
"I came to office promising to defend and expand educational opportunities for all children and all families regardless of circumstance. Today's decision by the Supreme Court is a victory for every parent whose child is being underserved in North Carolina," Gov. Pat McCrory said. "This is a victory for choice, and it's a victory for North Carolina students and their families."
"Two-hundred and twenty-four schools worked with parents to allow students to attend the school of their choice while awaiting today's court decision. More families will now have realistic access to educational options for their children," said Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake).
"Today the court stood with parents who have demanded greater educational choice, rather than an education system that is underserving too many of North Carolina's children," said Kevin P. Chavous, executive counsel of the American Federation for Children. "We are thrilled to see the Opportunity Scholarship Program affirmed so that it can continue to offer life changing educational opportunities to children in need, and empower the countless families who seek these opportunities."
"When it enacted this scholarship program, the North Carolina legislature joined nearly 20 other states that have seen the wisdom of giving parents additional educational opportunities for their children," said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dick Komer, who is lead counsel for two families who intervened in the case. "The great thing about school choice programs like North Carolina's is that school districts can no longer take low-income students' continued attendance for granted. Today's decision means that families using scholarships not only get access to schools better able to meet their children's unique needs, but the districts now have an incentive to better serve their students. School choice benefits all students."
Below is a statement from Darrell Allison, President of PEFNC:
"We are thankful to the Justices of the North Carolina State Supreme Court for believing that any program which helps ensure all children have access to a sound, basic education is serving a public purpose. We applaud them for recognizing that education is ultimately a personal right belonging to our citizens, not a governmental agency or system. We join the thousands of families across the state who are celebrating today because the Court has given them the legal right to exercise educational choice through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. We are thrilled for the many low-income students currently on the Program and the many more who need this option in the future.
It has been a difficult battle, yet even with the legal challenges in place parents have been resilient through many highs and lows of this journey. Their resolve and determination to secure their children's access to a high-quality education, despite economic challenges, has been inspiring to me, personally. Since the battle began in February 2014, over 11,000 applications have flooded in from low-income families representing nearly every part of our state. This year, over 90 percent of families who are currently in the Program have applied to renew their scholarships. The message from parents has been clear: 'We will not back down. We will not give up. We will win this fight for our children.' Today, their tenacious aspirations for their children's future were validated by the state's highest Court.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled the Opportunity Scholarship Program constitutional in our state, it is imperative that our supporters and critics alike understand that the Program is not and will never be the sole silver bullet to solve all of the challenges faced by many families in our education system. To the contrary, this Program will be just one small piece of the comprehensive K-12 puzzle that will be utilized to complement our state's public education system, not compete against it. Regardless of what school model a parent chooses, we must never forget that we are in this together and are fighting for the same thing: an education that rightly serves every child in North Carolina regardless of their geographic location or income status.
Lastly, and ever so importantly, I want to extend a sincere and genuine thank you to Senate President Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, and members of the General Assembly for their fearless, continued legal support of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Due to their active faith in the ideals of parental school choice, families will prosper in the freedom that real choice provides. I also salute the state's attorneys, and especially our partners from the Institute of Justice, for their tireless work in representing parents in this case."