CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Thursday to uphold the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, designed by Republican state lawmakers to offer up to $4,200 to students attending private schools, some of which have discriminatory anti-LGBT policies. The decision overturns a constitutional challenge upheld last summer by Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood.
The high court ruling allows $10.8 million dollars to immediately flow to private institutions and will enable a suggested expansion by the state Senate of up to $17.6 million in vouchers for this coming school year. In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted the use of tax dollars based on income-eligibility guidelines serves a public purpose and should not be prohibited from use in private institutions.
Chief Justice Mark Martin noted that a large number of North Carolina school children are not proficient in the state’s end-of-year exams and that “disagreement exists as to the innovations and reform necessary to address this and other educational issues in our state … such discussions inform the legislative process. But the role of judges is distinguishable, as we neither participate in this dialogue nor assess the wisdom of legislation.”
Advocacy groups that oppose the private school voucher program, such as Public Schools First NC, expressed disappointed in the ruling. They say it transfers much needed funds from public institutions to private and religious schools.
“Today is a very sad day in the history of our state,” Yevonne Brannon, chair of Public Schools First NC, said in a statement Thursday. “Our long-standing tradition of commitment to excellence in public education has made North Carolina a jewel among southern states. We cannot fathom how this decision upholds the constitutional promise that all children receive a sound, basic education within the public school system. And we are deeply concerned as strong public schools are critical for growing our economy and maintaining the vitality of our communities.”
The decision came after leaders in the state legislature asked the court to release the funds for the 2013 voucher program immediately after Hobgood declared the program a violation of the North Carolina Constitution last August. Hobgood ruled that “appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Hobgood’s ruling will now allow a private school enrollment increase of 361 percent from previous enrollment numbers.
A ‘dangerous new era’
In his argument before the court in Burton Craige, a Raleigh attorney representing voucher challengers, stated “we have entered a dangerous new era when public funds can be sent to unaccredited, standardless private schools that are free to discriminate based on disability and religion.”
LGBT advocates have echoed this concern and highlighted the lack of protections for LGBT students at a large percentage of the recipients of state voucher funds. Many of the institutions that request funds through the Opportunity Scholarship program are private religious institutions that have no policies protecting LGBT students from bullying and fail to provide services that ensure LGBT student’s academic experience is safe and supportive. State law, on the other hand, prohibits bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.
Charlotte-area religious institutions have drawn criticism for their association with anti-LGBT organizations or leaders and several local religious schools maintain policies that prohibit students from “engaging” in the “homosexual lifestyle.”
Thirty-seven Charlotte private schools are due to receive funds from the scholarship program, more than any other city in the state, according to a list of eligible schools published this week. Nearly all are religious schools, including several schools run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.
The local diocese has come under scrutiny for past allegations of anti-gay discrimination after firing an openly gay substitute teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School who announced his intentions to marry his same-gender partner. Last March, the school invited a controversial speaker who draw complaints for her derogatory remarks against gays and lesbians, divorce and single parents. Charlotte Catholic is not due to receive public voucher funds this year, but could be eligible in the future.
Northside Christian Academy, affiliated with Northside Baptist Church, will receive voucher funds. Their student code of conduct prohibits homosexuality and even prohibits students from using school computers to research LGBT issues or visiting websites “concerning people or activities that promote” homosexuality.