Marx wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In the mid ’50s, North Carolina lawmakers set up a school voucher program called the Pearsall Plan, which laid the path for white flight into private schools.
Although the segregationist statutes were finally repealed in 1969, vouchers, in reverse, have returned to North Carolina, as an “opportunity scholarship” program that provides resources for low-income students to attend a private or religious school of their choice.
Even though the constitutionality of vouchers is in question, North Carolina House and Senate leaders are moving for a last-minute $8 million to $10 million expansion of the voucher program.
Last Tuesday, Phil Berger, President Pro Tem of the Senate, and Thom Tillis, Speaker of the House, both gave speeches outside the General Assembly at a pro-voucher event sponsored by Parents for Educational Freedom in NC, a lobbying group.
“I look forward to us having the opportunity and the capacity this year for every child who signed up for the lottery,” Berger said.
“We want as many children as possible to have this choice,” Tillis said, “the choice that so many who speak against this have taken to put their kids in private schools.”
Tillis and Berger’s offices didn’t respond to repeated requests from the INDY for comment. Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers earmarked $10 million for vouchers, with $40 million being made available in 2015. The program, which will give low-income K–12 students a $4,200 voucher to attend private schools of their choice, began accepting applications on Feb. 1. But the pro-voucher camp is pushing for more money because the current $10 million allocation only provides scholarships for 2,400 students. More than 5,500 have applied.
In late February, Wake Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood issued a preliminary injunction against the program, citing its potential unconstitutionality.
Then in May, the N.C. Supreme Court issued a one-sentence ruling overturning Hobgood’s injunction.
Hobgood is expected to make his final ruling on the program’s constitutionality in late August. Remarking on the program will be constitutional, Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Moore, said, “I think we’re going to be able to go forward with it.”
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, opposes putting money into vouchers. Such a move would be “both bad policy and imprudent. It’s bad policy because the public shouldn’t be subsidizing parents sending their kids to unaccountable private schools. And it’s imprudent because there’s currently a court order blocking this program from going forward because it’s unconstitutional.”
Despite the Republican (and a few Democrats) rhetoric that vouchers are simply a way to help kids get out of bad public schools and into better ones, North Carolina’s program is part of an expansive state-by-state battle being waged by a libertarian “school choice” movement interested in privatizing education.
Resources from free-market, libertarian billionaires like Dick DeVos and philanthropic behemoths such as the Walton Family Foundation flow downhill to fund an array of astroturf “school choice” nonprofits like Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which lobby lawmakers on the state level and play the ground game.
After these organizations succeed in getting voucher legislation passed, a constitutional legal challenge inevitably arises from school board and educators associations. That’s when the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice steps in to try to win in the courts.
Documents obtained by the INDY show that the Walton Family Foundation gave $500,000 to Institute for Justice last year.
The Institute of Justice is, of course, litigating the North Carolina voucher battle. Also on the pro-voucher side is the Attorney General’s office, which is defending the legislation passed by the General Assembly. Voucher opponents include the N.C. Association of Educators, the N.C. School Boards Association, the NC Justice Center, and the Moral Monday movement.
Dick Komer, the lead attorney for Institute of Justice, said, “It’s not unusual for us to lose at trial court and win on appeal… We have a case in Colorado and lost at t rial court and that was reversed in appellate court. We have also just lost in trial court on procedural, constitutional claims in Alabama.”
Burton Craige is a lead attorney for voucher opponents. “They’re pouring these millions of dollars into private schools that have virtually zero standards and no accountability,” he said. “Perhaps we have hyper-accountability for public schools, but there is zero accountability for private schools.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “What’s another $10 million?.”