RALEIGH, North Carolina — A North Carolina judge won't block a state agency from distributing taxpayer money to cover private school tuition in advance of a hearing to determine whether the program championed by Republican lawmakers is legal.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said Wednesday he won't issue an injunction blocking the State Educational Assistance Authority from paying out $10 million in government-funded scholarships to students who won a lottery for tuition assistance to attend private or religious schools.
The state moved the distribution date to Aug. 15, about a month earlier than originally planned. That's four days ahead of an Aug. 19 hearing where Hobgood will hear arguments from lawyers representing a group of taxpayers, teachers and the state's 115 public school boards, who contend the voucher program violates the state constitution.
Hobgood issued an order in February that blocked the program from taking effect until two lawsuits over the issue could proceed to trial. The North Carolina Supreme Court then ruled in May to unfreeze the program, which at the time wasn't set to send out money until after the August hearing.
The state agency has denied it changed the date as part of an effort to get the money out to students before Hobgood could rule.
Lawyers for the opponents asked Hobgood to issue a new order blocking the money from being distributed prior to the Aug. 19 hearing. The judge declined, saying said the state Supreme Court's earlier ruling "has given us all a clue" of how the justices are likely to rule if the issue reaches them again.
"If taxpayer money goes out before the date of the hearing, then I'm just following what the Supreme Court has told me to do," the judge said. "I recognize they're the Supreme Court, and I'm a superior court judge."
Children seeking the scholarships must qualify for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program, which has an income limit of about $44,000 for a family of four. The grants aren't available to students already attending private schools.
The General Assembly set aside $10 million last year to give up to $4,200 each for up to 2,400 students to meet tuition for the academic year beginning next month. About 1,000 students have indicated they plan to accept the awards.
The school boards worry the program sets a precedent for conservative legislators to drain resources from public schools in favor of private schools under no obligation to educate all children, regardless of race, income level or religious affiliation. Advocates for the program say it offers a needed alternative for families living in areas with underperforming public schools.
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