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NC private-school voucher program questionable for 2nd straight year as court decides future

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — A state program that uses taxpayer money to pay student tuition at private and religious schools is headed for uncertainty for the second straight year as North Carolina judge grapple with whether it's constitutional.

The latest batch of rulings by North Carolina's Supreme Court on Thursday didn't include its decision on whether the Opportunity Scholarships program can continue. The court isn't scheduled to issue opinions again until late August, about the time classes resume for the new academic year.

Though the Supreme Court could announce a decision in the voucher case before then, parents such as KC Cooper of Statesville are facing weeks of wondering whether a ruling could mean pulling their child out of school after classes start. It looked like that was possible last August, when a trial judge ruled the program an unconstitutional use of state money. Appeals court judges stepped in weeks later and allowed the money to flow for the year.

"This uncertainty, it's something that I don't want to give energy to. I want to keep the faith and believe that it will push through just like last year. But then I do have to remember it's there, so I'm not going to turn a deaf ear to it," said Cooper, 42, who used the voucher program to enroll her special-needs 7th-grader in a Christian school last fall.

Cooper said she was considering homeschooling the boy until the scholarship program became available last year. She said she became frustrated with her son's public school, which insisted on promoting him to sixth grade though he failed to learn what he needed to be prepared.

Traci Martin said her disabled 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter with attention-deficit disorder had great success at their Christian school this year. They'll be joined by two younger siblings, including one who was so successful in his public school he stayed there last year, Martin said.

"My job as a parent is to be able raise my kids to where when I'm gone they're able to take care of themselves and make a living and everything else. The public school route is not going to work for the older two," said Martin, 42, of Gastonia. "They were falling through the cracks."

The Supreme Court is deciding the program's fate after Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled last summer that the program violates the state Constitution because religious schools could enroll or reject children based on their faith.

Hobgood also ruled the program invalid because it doesn't require that private K-12 schools meet state teaching standards. Teachers at voucher schools aren't required to have a high school diploma, criminal background checks aren't mandatory and schools may focus instruction on Biblical or Koranic texts.

About 20 states help students attend religious and other private schools with vouchers, tax credits or both, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina's case differs from legal challenges to voucher programs elsewhere because of the state constitution's detailed emphasis on education spending and its requirement that tax money be spent only for public purposes, according to attorneys challenging the program.

The Supreme Court last year decided to fast-track the case and allow preparation for the coming year to go ahead. That allowed the State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program, to accept and screen scholarship applications and hold a lottery determining which students would receive the money if the court signs off and lawmakers follow through with funding, SEAA grants director Elizabeth McDuffie said.

The program distributed more than $4.6 million for 1,216 students to attend 224 private schools during the school year that ended last month, according to the authority. Almost three out of four students receiving scholarships were minorities. At least three-quarters of the schools identify a religious creed.

Eligibility increases for the coming year as the income ceiling rises to nearly $59,000 for a family of four.


Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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