by Félix Pérez/image above: Former state supt. Mike Ward speaks at news conference announcing lawsuit
A group of North Carolinians, including active and retired educators, a former state school superintendent, the president of the state’s largest educators’ association and several parents, filed a lawsuit against the state’s voucher program, charging that the law violates the state constitution’s requirement that state funds be used “exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
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“Vouchers for private schools are an affront to a state that has a long and cherished history of public education,” said Rodney Ellis, a teacher from Winston-Salem with two children in public schools. “Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools — and on the constitution of our state,” added Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
The voucher program is one of a series of laws by Governor Pat McCrory and a state legislature hostile to teachers and public education. The voucher program alone will drain $11 million from public schools in the 2014-15 school year. North Carolina spends $500 million less on public schools than it did 2008 even though the student population has grown by more than 50,000 during that period. Recent budget cuts have resulted in a loss of more than 10,000 pre-K slots, the cap on class sizes and 9,000 education positions.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, December 11, by the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina Justice Center, maintains that the voucher law violates Article IX, Section 6, of the North Carolina Constitution, which states that public funds for education “shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.” The legal complaint also contends the law violates Article V, Section 2(1), of the constitution, which states the “power of taxation shall be exercised . . . for public purposes only.”
Melinda Lawrence, executive director of the Justice Center, said in a statement, “The North Carolina Constitution could not be more explicit. Public monies are to be used only for free public schools. Period. That is the heart of our legal challenge.”
Private schools that participate in the program are not required to have their students take state proficiency exams, hire licensed teachers, issue report cards or even be accredited. Many private schools will not have to provide any student achievement information to the state.
Plaintiff and former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward warned that putting public tax dollars into private schools will further weaken already underfunded public schools.
Vouchers are not a solution to the problems in our schools. The answer is to strengthen our schools, not to strip them of more resources, said Ward.
Ward said that while sponsors of the legislation claim their voucher plan will help disadvantaged students, the program’s lax requirements are a recipe for abuse.
“This puts taxpayers in the position of funding private education for the few and I think that’s a misuse of tax dollars,” he added. “That’s not what taxpayers want.”