Teachers group sues over private school grants

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — Public school advocates sued the state Wednesday in a bid to block a new law that would let taxpayer money be used by low-income students wishing to attend private or religious schools.

Lawyers for the North Carolina Association of Educators and the liberal North Carolina Justice Center filed the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of some two dozen parents, teachers and others. They contend the new law violates a section of the state constitution which creates a school fund and requires that the money be "used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools."

"That word 'exclusively,' that's a very unusual word in a constitution," said Burton Craige, a lawyer representing the 25 plaintiffs. The lawsuit asks judges "to declare that 'exclusively' means exclusively."

A legislator who championed the grants said the lawsuit's argument fails because the money was never appropriated to the public schools, but to a state education funding body which already administers college savings programs.

"Parents who want to take advantage of this program can do so with a clear expectation that their child will be in a different school next August," said Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake.

The law taking effect for the next academic year starting in August would give annual grants of $4,200 each. Students are eligible if they qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, were assigned to a public school during the 2014 spring semester, and want to attend a private or religious school. About 2,400 students could qualify for grants in the first year, when lawmakers budgeted $10 million. Legislators said they hope to expand the program in future years.

Thirteen states had tuition tax credit programs as of this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Opponents argue that North Carolina's law drains money from public schools without private schools facing the same accountability or responsibility to educate all comers regardless of ability or handicap. And there's scant evidence that children learn better, said former state schools superintendent Mike Ward, one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs.

"Private schools don't provide a report card of their results to the public. Private schools don't account to taxpayers about who they serve, who they underserve and who they refuse to serve. They don't account to taxpayers, and so the community can't judge if their tax dollars are being used well," Ward said. "Vouchers are bad public policy. They tear away millions of dollars that are badly needed by the public schools."

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.

A nonpartisan analysis of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program found taxpayers saved about $1.49 for every $1 spent on the tax credit program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But few private schools limit their annual costs to $4,200 per child, suggesting the program's initial purpose could be expanded and income limits eased to allow middle-class families to draw more tax money to private and religious schools, Ward said.

The head of a group that has pushed for the grants said they're needed because too often poor children are stuck in public schools that don't prepare them for graduation and life. The lawsuit is an effort to cling to an unacceptable status quo, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

"We're fighting for the principle that no kid should be forced to attend a school that continues to fail them another year, and we're fighting to ensure that parents have the choice to send their child to a better performing school, whether that school is public or private," he said in a statement.

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