North Carolina Supreme Court School Choice Ruling Has National Influence
By Kimberly Sawatka
On the verge of a new school year, recently the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program. Another state has now been added to the growing list of higher courts supporting educational choice programs, making this a significant ruling across the country in more ways than one.
In early 2014, a lower court ruled the program unconstitutional. After appeals were filed, the state Supreme Court surprisingly decided to pass over the Court of Appeals and hear the case themselves. This move by the court placed incredible importance on the case from a national perspective. With the favorable 4-3 ruling, the opportunity scholarship program now even has room for expansion allowing more North Carolinian’s to participate in the program in coming years.
The North Carolina legislature enacted the voucher program in 2013 to allow 2,400 students to receive an opportunity scholarship and attend the school of their choice. The program received a record number of applicants in a short period of time, proving parents overwhelmingly supported the program’s creation and were seeking access to educational options.
Shortly after the legislature voted for the opportunity scholarship program, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest teachers’ union, assembled several other plaintiffs to challenge the voucher program’s legality under the state constitution.
Opposition challenged the program with arguments tied to the program’s funding. Public schools in North Carolina are funded from two accounts – one specifically set aside for public school funding, and the majority of the public school budget coming from a second general state account. Opportunity scholarship funds are housed and drawn from the state’s general fund, never being accounted for in the state’s specific education account. However, the program’s opposition argued that these state funds are only to be used for public schools.
The opposing justices claimed the program provides no “framework for evaluation,” while the four in favor stated in their ruling, “Disagreement exists as to the innovations and reforms necessary to address this and other educational issues in our state. Our state and country benefit from the debate between those with differing viewpoints in this quintessentially political dialogue.”
In a similar case four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Arizona’s opportunity scholarship program. Since the legal arguments in this case centered on state constitutional issues, no further legal action is expected.
Notably, as other state lawmakers move forward to enact similar programs, legal cases like North Carolina set a precedent for those looking to block educational choice reforms. Putting a child’s education first is not just a political issue, but a matter of giving every child access a quality education no matter what.
To date over 5,500 applications for the program have been received, and a lottery will be conducted to administer scholarships to students of low-income families.