Does it serve a clear public purpose to give lower-income families $4,200-a-year, taxpayer-funded scholarships so their children can attend private or religious schools?
That was one of the main questions the N.C. Supreme Court grappled with as it considered the constitutionality of the state’s “Opportunity Scholarship” program.
Earlier this legislative session, dozens of students who received the state-funded scholarships and their parents descended on the Legislative Building to advocate for the program’s continuation and expansion. Parents told emotional stories of their kids getting bullied, not challenged or treated poorly by teachers at public schools. The voucher program, they said, has put their kids in better learning environments, and they have flourished.
I’m not a constitutional lawyer and would never pretend to be. But it would be difficult to argue, by anyone who sat through the news conference with those parents and kids, many of whom were African-Americans, that the voucher program doesn’t serve a public purpose. It would seem that giving lower-income children a better change at thriving in school – and their lives – would serve many public purposes.
Last week, not surprisingly, the Republican-controlled Supreme Court deemed the program constitutional in a 4-3, party-line decision. The program was created and continues to be championed mainly by General Assembly Republicans, although it does have some Democratic support.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Mark Martin wrote that a previous court case established principles for determining whether an undertaking is for a public purpose. One of the guidelines is that “the activity benefits the public generally, as opposed to special interests or persons.” To satisfy that test, it isn’t necessary for the scholarship program to be used by every citizen, Martin wrote. (Vouchers are only available to students whose families meet income-based eligibility guidelines.)
“Although the scholarships at issue here are available only to families of modest means, and therefore inure to the benefit of the eligible students in the first instance, and to the designated nonpublic schools in the second, the ultimate beneficiary of providing these children additional educational opportunities is our collective citizenry,” Martin wrote.
But in her dissent, Justice Robin Hudson wrote that she didn’t believe the voucher program satisfies that part of the test because private schools that receive scholarship money have no required teacher training or credentials and no required curriculum or other means of measuring whether the education received by students at these schools prepares them to become productive members of society.
“The main constitutional flaw in this program is that it provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools’ contribution to public purposes; such a huge omission is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear,” Hudson wrote.
Her words underscore the need for state monitoring of the students who get the scholarships and the schools they attend, especially as legislators plan to expand the program to more students and by millions of dollars. Other states have more stringent accountability measures.
The Opportunity Scholarship program might be constitutional according to one court, but without accountability, the recent ruling isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
As Martin noted very early in his opinion: “If constitutional requirements are met, the wisdom of the legislation is a question for the General Assembly.”
So, too, is the assurance that the money spent on private schools is doing the trick. Legislative Republicans often say that throwing more money at under-performing public schools isn’t the answer to educational woes.
We should all know whether giving that public money to private schools brings about better results.
Patrick Gannon is the editor of N.C. Insider.