Private school voucher program students continue in class as courts weigh unconstitutionality

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — Medical assistant Melanie Moss wanted better things for her children. The public schools weren't bad but her daughter was coming home last year complaining of boredom.

Then she won a lottery for a new program promoted by North Carolina conservatives helping students from low-income families attend private or religious schools with taxpayer money.

"It's an opportunity that we would never be able to do otherwise," said Moss, 38, of Mars Hill. "We live week-to-week and check-to-check."

But just as the academic year was starting, a state judge ruled the Opportunity Scholarships program was unconstitutional on several levels. As supporters fight on in court, schools that expected to start collecting vouchers last month have kept hundreds of children like Moss's fifth-grade son and third-grade daughter in the classrooms where they started rather than turning them back to public schools.

An appeals court could rule as early as this week whether the money should be spent anyway until the case ultimately is settled months down the line.

Almost 1,900 students and more than 300 private schools were ready to participate in the program before it was halted. At least 575 students were certified as enrolled by schools who filed with the state to collect voucher payments, according to the state agency administering the program.

The state's Catholic, independent and other Christian schools are waiting to see whether courts release payments of up to $4,200 per student, but are committed to allowing enrolled children to stay in their classrooms at their own expense if necessary, spokesmen said.

"Schools are not putting children on the street and making them pawns in this," said Joe Haas, executive director of the North Carolina Christian School Association. About three-quarters of its 75 to 80 member schools have enrolled voucher students, he said.

At least a dozen states and the District of Columbia provide state-funded school vouchers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Court fights were common in the early stages of voucher programs in most states, Haas said.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled last month the program violates the state constitution because it sent money to schools that can discriminate by religion. The program also disrupts the uniform system of public education that instructs 1.5 million children and appropriates taxpayer funds to schools that would not be held accountable for educational achievement, the judge said.

About 60 schools that scholarship recipients planned to attend are not accredited by any organization, Hobgood said in his ruling. At least 303 students planned to attend a school with fewer than 25 students in 2013-14 and at least 93 children were headed for schools with 10 or fewer students.

Administrators or board members of the two schools with the most voucher students seeking admission with 81 each — Greensboro Islamic Academy and Victory Christian Center School in Charlotte — did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Fayetteville Christian School is prepared to lose the roughly $120,000 its 30 voucher students were expected to bring in rather than "cause emotional distress and upheaval in the children's lives to be forced to change schools in the middle of the year," school administrator Tammi Peters said.

The pre-kindergarten through high school has 590 students and a $2.8 million budget that comes almost exclusively from tuition of up to $6,000 for the oldest students, Peters said in an email message. The school's admissions criteria require membership in "a local faith based, Bible believing church" and bans adherents of what it considers non-Christian religions such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses as well as Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and most Jews.

Robert Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice representing dozens of school boards suing to block the voucher program, said it's fine for private schools to educate children at no cost to taxpayers if they wish.

"If the private schools chose to go forward participating in the program and parents chose to move forward with enrolling their children in those private schools, then they did so with their eyes open," Orr said. He represents the North Carolina School Boards Association and about 70 of the state's 115 school boards, which consider the nascent voucher program a threat to public education that conservative lawmakers will inevitably seek to expand.


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

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