Voucher slow-down makes sense

Feb 02, 2014

The 2013 legislative changes to education were historic, but one that represented a sea of change was the Opportunity Scholarship program, otherwise known as school vouchers.

The voucher system is one that provides state funding to offset the price of private schooling, something not done before in the state.

Predictably, the diversion of $11 million in funds from public education to a separate fund that would offer up to $4,200 in state funds to low-income students wanting to attend a private school led to legal challenges.

The program was a popular one, attracting 5,000 or so applications for an estimated 2,400 student slots funded by the General Assembly. The Opportunity Scholarship winners were to be announced this spring, but a Superior Court judge put the program on hold until the legal issues underlying the changes can be sorted out. How long that will take is anybody’s guess. General Assembly leaders pushing the program have vowed they will make changes to address the legal concerns in the short legislative session that will start in May.

Voucher opponents are challenging the program on the basis of two provisions in the state constitution. One, Article I, Section 19, provides that no person shall be subjected to discrimination by the state because of race, color, religion or national origin. A second provision, Article V, Section 2 states that the power of taxation shall be exercised in a just and equitable manner, for public purposes only.

Aside from the fact that, no matter how is it phrased, the very essence of a school voucher program is to pay private schools with taxpayer funds, discrimination issues have been questioned in some of the schools.

NC Policy Watch noted two of the top three private schools identified by voucher applicants are Islamic schools that exclude students with disabilities and English language learners from attending. A Raleigh Christian school selected by many applicants bars non Christian students from attending. As the voucher program stands now, taxpayers could be funding schools that focus on anything from atheism to Zionism and everything in between.

Even Haywood Christian Academy Headmaster Blake Stanberry, who supports the voucher program overall and said his school would benefit from the program, voiced some concerns over the legislation as written.

HCA has gone through a rigorous accreditation process to ensure its students will have the highest academic offerings, but not all private schools selected by voucher recipients must meet such standards.

“There’s not a lot of accountability,” Stanberry said. “As an accredited school, we’ve had to strive for excellence. I think that’s worthy of tax dollars. … If we reallocate or redirect funds, we should direct it to schools that are accredited.”

Stanberry’s concern is valid, yet that isn’t even one of the principles being challenged in court.

Those backing the legal challenge to vouchers argue that private schools not only use public funds for nonpublic uses, which is contrary to the state constitution, but discriminate against certain individuals, another constitutional infraction.

They are powerful arguments — and ones that need to be sorted out before the state’s education system is upended in a grand experiment that could impact our children at a very vulnerable state in their education.

Judge Habgood was correct in halting program implementation until the legal issues are vetted.

Making sure a program is legal before spending considerable public funding on it is simply common sense. Plus, it is something that certainly is in the general taxpayer’s best interest.

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