(The Center Square) – House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger asked a court Monday to dismiss the constitutional challenge to the state's school-choice program.
The lawsuit, filed by a group of North Carolina parents and teachers against the state and the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, claims the Opportunity Scholarship program limits religious freedom and discriminates against students based on sexuality and religious beliefs.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides state-funded tuition assistance of up to $4,200 a year for private education for low-income students.
Berger, R-Rockingham, and Moore, R-Cleveland, argue the program's constitutionality was upheld by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2015. Ending the program would eliminate an equal opportunity for education for thousands of children, they said.
"It is becoming harder and harder for families to find schools they can enroll in to meet the needs of their children, and eliminating Opportunity Scholarships would remove yet another option for families," Berger and Moore said in a joint statement.
Challenges with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic brought the demand for education freedom to the forefront of the North Carolina Legislature.
Lawmakers approved a measure last month that expanded the Opportunity Scholarship program. Lawmakers removed the cap on the number of new awards that can be distributed to students entering kindergarten and first grade and lowered the income eligibility requirements for 2021.
Education researchers said school closures because of COVID-19 will have a greater effect on low-income and minority students.
"With school closures, students of color or from low-income families are grappling with lack of internet access and smart devices, making continuity of coursework and access to virtual after-school STEM programs a challenge. Without steady instruction over two semesters, children may lose a significant part of their annual gains in STEM competencies," researchers wrote in the Scientific American.
Data from the state's Education Assistance Authority shows a higher proportion of Opportunity Scholarship applicants are Black students than the proportion served by the public school.
"School choice shouldn't be just an option for rich families who can supplement online learning," Berger and Cooper said. "Low- and moderate-income children deserve the same access to educational opportunities as their well-off peers."