One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: A Setback for Choice in North Carolina

A lack of progress is always frustrating. I’ve been trying to convince my parents that broccoli is too dangerous to be trusted for months. But my struggles pale in comparison to the frustration that a large number of students and families in the Tar Heel State are facing after yesterday’s unfavorable ruling regarding school choice.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago while discussing an Independence Institute/Friedman Foundation amicus brief in the Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program case, I find legalese to be fairly terrifying. Fortunately, the Carolina Journal provides a succinct (and mercifully un-legal) summary:

“[North Carolina Superior Court Judge] Hobgood said providing taxpayer money for the scholarships without curriculum standards or teacher certification requirements ‘does not accomplish a public purpose.’ He added that the program ran afoul of the state’s landmark Leandro decision, which requires the state to provide every child with the opportunity to have a ‘sound, basic education.’”

I’m going to level with you: I’m not familiar with this particular line of reasoning. It’s very different from the faith-based arguments we’ve heard in other voucher cases like the one in Douglas County. My best guess is that the judge was attempting to apply a version of the five-step test employed by the U.S. Supreme Court when it considered a national voucher case out of Ohio back in 2002. That program was found to be constitutional under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but this program must be tested under North Carolina’s state constitution.

Unsurprisingly, the North Carolina case will be appealed to a higher court. In the meantime, a number of groups have expressed disappointment over the decision.  That disappointment is especially pronounced because of ruling’s timing; a large number of low-income North Carolina families who had planned to use the scholarships to attend private schools are now having to scramble to make other arrangements as school cranks back up.

Despite the setback, supporters of the law contend that the program is constitutionally sound and will continue the fight in appellate court. Phil Berger, North Carolina’s Senate President Pro Tem, put it best:

“Today’s ruling by a single trial court judge advances a clear political agenda ahead of the needs of thousands of North Carolina children…We are committed to providing students a sound, basic education — and that’s the very reason we don’t want to trap disabled and underprivileged children in low-performing schools that are failing to deliver on that responsibility. This ruling yet again frustrates parents who desperately want to provide what’s best for their kids, and I hope we will move swiftly to appeal.”

Right you are, Phil. Best of luck to the legal teams fighting for the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the families it serves. Eddie will be watching carefully.