School board wants to ponder voucher litigation
The Haywood County Board of Education has decided more information is needed before joining a state legal battle to fight school vouchers.
During a Jan. 13 board meeting, Chairman Chuck Francis recommended joining litigation against a new state law that, among other things, created “opportunity scholarships” with taxpayer dollars to help low-income students attend private schools.
A group of plaintiffs with the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina Justice Center filed a lawsuit last month challenging the vouchers.
The voucher scholarships are capped at $4,200 per student, but scholarship amounts must not exceed the actual cost of tuition and fees. Families eligible cannot have incomes that exceed 133 percent of the federal poverty level, at least for the first year.
To be eligible for the voucher, a student must live in a household that meets 100 percent of free and reduced lunch qualifications. In addition, eligible students must be a full-time student who has not graduated and has attended a public school during the 2014 spring semester.
Francis has spoken against the voucher program since it was first first considered last year.
“(The vouchers) are not going to help someone in a lower-bracket income go to a private school," Francis said. "They’re just widening the achievement gap between different classes of folks,” he said.
Applications for the Opportunity Scholarship Program can be submitted Feb. 1 for the 2014-15 school year.
Opponents of the school voucher program argue that the new law takes money away from traditional public schools in order to fund private schools.
The voucher program sets aside $10 million in public funds during the first year and is expected to grow to $50 million annually.
Francis said funding the voucher program for private schools would hurt the public education system.
“If $50 million is coming out of our general school fund, which is not going to be replaced somewhere else to us, I look at it as we’re getting ready to lose about half a million dollars in the next two years,” Francis said. “If they want to do vouchers, that’s fine, but I think they need to fund it separate from taking it out of our budget.”
The state currently has a budget of $7.87 billion to cover K-12 education costs. The total amount allotted to Haywood County Schools from the state is $38 million, which is $787,674 less than the school system received last year.
Despite Francis's explanation, board members still had too many unanswered questions to take a vote.
“I’m very much against vouchers,” board member Lynn Milner said after the meeting. “I think we just want to table it and study it some more and vote later.”
Board member Jim Harley Francis said he was not in favor of the voucher program but didn't see a reason to join in the litigation yet when funding for the legislation is still in the works. Currently, the General Assembly has only appropriated $10 million, not the $50 million in annual appropriations per year.
"It all could change next year," Jim Francis said. "With the way a lot of people are talking, there’s a lot of people upset and a lot of people are mad so who knows what could happen."
According to the resolution Francis recommended to the board, the voucher program doesn’t require private schools to provide the opportunity to receive a sound basic education, as required by the N.C. Constitution. In addition, the voucher program does not require private schools to engage in non-discriminatory admission practices.
The resolution also states that all litigation costs would be covered by the North Carolina School Boards Association, so Haywood County Schools would not have to front any costs to participate.
Even though litigation would not cost anything, board member Rhonda Schandevel said she didn’t vote for the resolution because the details were too unclear. She said one potential downside to joining the litigation would be getting involved while the legislation could still change its figures.
“Anything that takes money away from public school systems, I’m totally against," Schandevel said. "But it’s not very clear what the litigation — or more so the General Assembly — is proposing. And all that could change because it’s an election year.”
Until more definitive information is released about the litigation, Schandevel said there wasn't enough information to decide whether participating was a smart move for the board.
Board members were also weary to join the litigation because only a few individuals and organizations have agreed to participate.
So far, supporters of the litigation include the Rev. Robert Richardson, III, Michael and Delores Galloway, Steven W. Sizemore, and the North Carolina School Board’s Association v. the State of North Carolina, the North Carolina State Board of Education and the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, as stated in the resolution.
Board member Lynn Milner said she didn't vote for the resolution because other school systems had opted out of participating. She said she wanted to find out why only individuals had joined before voting.
“Only a few people have joined this lawsuit, so we want to look at this and see why the other school systems may not have joined it,” Milner said.
All board members received information regarding the litigation on Monday, and will continue to receive more updates.
“We get stuff all the time, so it’s definitely ongoing,” Schandevel said.
Jim Harley Francis said there was also no indication of when the litigation would take place.
“It may be two years from now before they actually bring it here, so by that time this could have all changed again,” he said.
If the board later comes to a consensus to participate, there’s still time to join the litigation, Chuck Francis said.