RALEIGH, North Carolina — A divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of a Republican-backed program that spends taxpayer money on tuition for students at private and religious schools.
The 4-3 decision split North Carolina's highest court along ideological lines, reversing a lower court ruling declaring the state's Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Mark Martin wrote in the majority opinion that taxpayers who challenged the program failed to show they suffered harm, adding that it's not the court's responsibility to determine whether such tuition vouchers are a good idea.
"Our state and country benefit from the debate between those with differing viewpoints in this quintessentially political dialogue. Such discussions inform the legislative process," wrote Martin, who was joined by the court's other three Republican justices. "But the role of judges is distinguishable, as we neither participate in this dialogue nor assess the wisdom of legislation. Just as the legislative and executive branches of government are expected to operate within their constitutionally defined spheres, so must the courts."
Last year, the program distributed more than $4.6 million for 1,216 students from low-income families to attend 224 private schools. At least three-quarters of the schools identify a religious creed.
Supporters of the program tout that almost three-quarters of the students who received scholarships were minorities.
"Today the Supreme Court reaffirmed that education in North Carolina is about our children and their future," said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who backed the law creating the program. "This ruling makes clear that parents — not education bureaucrats or politicians — ought to be able to choose the educational pathway best suited to their children's needs, and it empowers thousands of low-income families across the state to make that important choice."
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.
In a pair of dissents, the court's three Democrats said the scholarships violated a constitutional edict that public funds can be spent only for public purposes. They also agreed with an earlier ruling by Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood that the program was unconstitutional because religious schools can enroll or reject children based on their faith.
Critics also point out that the program doesn't require private K-12 schools to 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 Bible or Quran texts.
"Today is a sad day for any North Carolinian who cares about public education," said Christine Bischoff, a staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center. "Allowing public funds to go to private schools will directly harm our already underfunded schools — and the children of North Carolina who rely on them."