A Wake County Superior Court judge on Thursday ordered a stop to the use of taxpayer money to pay tuition at private or religious schools.
Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the private school voucher program, also known as Opportunity Scholarships, is unconstitutional on several accounts. Advocates say they plan to appeal the decision.
Hobgood said the program pays for students to attend schools that are not obliged to meet state curriculum requirements, violating the state constitution's guarantee for students to have an opportunity to a sound, basic education.
The ruling also declared that it is unconstitutional for public funds to go to privately run and managed schools.
Teacher groups and many of the state’s 115 school boards are challenging the program, arguing that the state needs to show a greater investment in public schools.
“If the constitution state that money should be used expressly and exclusively for public education, then I think that's where it should be,” said Rodney Ellis, a plaintiff and president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
“And if we got those funds in the schools and get additional support we need, then we can actually provide a quality education for every child in North Carolina," he added.
The state agency managing the funds says money that was planned for distribution earlier this week was stopped. It was going to distribute the first $728,000 in tuition money for 363 students.
“We had submitted the request on Monday, and we have put in a cancellation, so the money will not disperse,” said Elizabeth McDuffie, director of grants, training and research at N.C. State Educational Assistance Authority.
The law sets aside $10 million in scholarship money available for up to 2,400 students for a maximum of $4,200 each. McDuffie says the agency offered scholarships to about 4,200 students, with 1,879 students accepting, as of Thursday.
Supporters of the vouchers say they are concerned about what the ruling will mean for students who may not be able to afford the tuition without assistance.
“The idea that we’re going to yank those kids out of those seats and put them back into public schools where we know we have less than 20 percent of a success rate for them? I say that’s not only unconstitutional but that’s unconscionable to me,” said Darrell Allison, President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
Judge Robert Hobgood had issued a temporary injunction in February that was eventually overturned by the state Supreme Court. Allison says this latest attempt to halt the program is troublesome for families and students involved.
“What we’re fighting here is this continuous attempt to shortchange the process, this continuous attempt to disrupt and shut things down,” he said.
Allison said there will be an expedited appeal filed to a higher court to stay the permanent injunction, which would allow the program to continue until an ultimate ruling could be reached.