RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina's Supreme Court began deciding a case Tuesday over whether millions of dollars in taxpayer money can be used to pay student tuition at private and religious schools.
The state's highest court spent more than two hours listening to lawyers and will decide within months whether the Opportunity Scholarships program now in its first year will continue.
A trial judge last summer ruled the program violates the state Constitution because religious schools could enroll or reject children based on their faith and because there are no requirements that privately run K-12 schools meet state teaching standards.
The program also violates the constitution's requirement that tax money be spent only on public purposes, said Robert Orr, an attorney representing 60 percent of the state's local school districts. Paying private school bills when public schools need money fails that test, Orr said.
The grants of up to $4,200 per student supplements public education, said state attorney Lauren Clemmons. The constitution requires that public schools "must be established and funded, but the state legislature could set up other education schemes outside of the free schools," she said.
The program has distributed more than $4.2 million for 1,200 students to attend 216 private schools around the state, according to the State Education Assistance Authority. At least three-quarters of the schools identify a religious creed.
The money goes to students who qualified for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program and would be newcomers to private schools. Eligibility increases for the year starting in August as the income ceiling rises to nearly $59,000 for a family of four.
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 and the leeway allowed private schools, said Burton Craig, an attorney for opponents of the program. 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, Craig said.
"The legislature can't hand over millions of dollars based on the blithe assumption that anything that calls itself a school is providing a real education," Craig said.
Chief Justice Mark Martin asked how far lawmakers can experiment with delivering education.
If they experiment with public money, lawmakers should at least meet the same guidelines set by an earlier Supreme Court ruling that the state must educate its citizens with well-prepared teachers and a curriculum sufficient to prepare for a fast-changing world, said Orr, a former Supreme Court justice who wrote the verdict in the landmark education case.
Noah Huffstetler, a private attorney hired by state legislative leaders to defend the law, argued the court shouldn't consider whether the program's money is being well spent.
"The question of assessing whether or not the taxpayers are getting their money's worth is, with all due respect, reserved for the Legislature," he said.
The voucher program is "designed in such a way that the schools are accountable directly to the parents who decide to place their children in those schools," Huffstetler said. Parents who aren't satisfied with the attention and education their child is receiving can go elsewhere.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio
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