(The Center Square) – Seven North Carolina parents including the president of a teacher’s union have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s private school voucher program.
Tamika Walker Kelly, president of North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), and the other plaintiffs allege that the Opportunity Scholarship program limits religious freedom and discriminates against students based on sexuality and religious beliefs.
Despite growing support for school choice, the group, also backed by the National Education Association, asked a Wake County judge to eliminate the program.
“Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools and on our state constitution,” Kelly said in a statement.
The Opportunity Scholarship program provides state-funded tuition assistance of up to $4,200 a year for private education for low-income students.
In the 2019-2020 school year, the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority provided 12,284 vouchers to private schools.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that some of the private schools force students to conform to their religious beliefs, including those surrounding homosexuality and gender. Both forms of discrimination are prohibited under the state’s constitution.
NCAE has challenged the program’s constitutionality before, claiming that it uses taxpayer money to fund private-managed schools. In 2015, a North Carolina Supreme Court overruled a lower court’s 2014 decision that found the program unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs also maintained the same argument now.
“Unfortunately, vouchers do nothing more than starve already scarce funding from the public schools that 90 percent of North Carolina students attend, and give them to private schools that are unaccountable to parents and taxpayers," said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.
A recent survey of 800 voters showed overwhelming support for school choice in North Carolina. The Civitas Institute poll released in January found that 81 percent of the respondents agreed that parents should be able to pick a suitable school for their children.
Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said eliminating the program will block access to private school education for lower-income students.
“The far-left NCAE says it cares about equity in schooling, but it's suing to ensure low-income families can't afford to send their children to private school,” Ballard said. “Nobody disputes that children will suffer from public school closures, yet this suit would strip low-income children of the only chance they have to attend private schools, which are open for in-class instruction."
Education researchers say school closures because of COVID-19 will have a greater impact 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 that a higher proportion of Opportunity Scholarship applicants are Black than the proportion served by the public school.