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NC teachers group sues over private school grants

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Public school advocates sued the state Wednesday in a bid to block a new law that would let taxpayer money be used by low-income students wishing to attend private or religious schools.

Lawyers for the North Carolina Association of Educators and the liberal North Carolina Justice Center filed the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of some two dozen parents, teachers and others. They contend the new law violates a section of the state constitution which creates a school fund and requires that the money be "used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools."

"That word 'exclusively,' that's a very unusual word in a constitution," said Burton Craige, a lawyer representing the 25 plaintiffs. The lawsuit asks judges "to declare that 'exclusively' means exclusively."

The law taking effect for the next academic year starting in August would give annual grants of $4,200 each. Students are eligible if they qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, were assigned to a public school during the 2014 spring semester, and want to attend a private or religious school. About 2,400 students could qualify for grants in the first year, when lawmakers budgeted $10 million. Legislators said they hope to expand the program in future years.

"Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools, and on the constitution of our state," said NCAE President Rodney Ellis.

Republican House Speaker Paul Stam stands be his vote, saying opponents have "a hostility to private education."

"This is money that was never appropriated for public schools," Stam told WNCN said.

Although opponents argue the money could be used for public schools, Stam said the same could be said "for everything in the budget."

"In which case, then all of our funding for law enforcement and environment is unconstitutional," Stam said.

Thirteen states had tuition tax credit programs as of this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Opponents argue that North Carolina's law drains money from public schools without private schools facing the same accountability or responsibility to educate all comers regardless of ability or handicap. And there's scant evidence that children learn better, said former state schools superintendent Mike Ward, one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs.

"Private schools don't provide a report card of their results to the public. Private schools don't account to taxpayers about who they serve, who they underserve and who they refuse to serve. They don't account to taxpayers, and so the community can't judge if their tax dollars are being used well," Ward said. "Vouchers are bad public policy. They tear away millions of dollars that are badly needed by the public schools."

Former North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward further argued the income threshold for vouchers will be above the poverty level.

"Only students whose parents have the funds to make up the difference between voucher and how much the tuition will actually cost will be able to participate," Ward said.

Supporters say besides giving parents more control over their child's education, the scholarship grants save money because private school tuition is typically less than the per-pupil cost at public schools. At an average $8,400 cost to educate a student in public schools, state budget-writers this year estimated $11.8 million in savings resulting from lower school enrollment.

A nonpartisan analysis of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program found taxpayers saved about $1.49 for every $1 spent on the tax credit program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But few private schools limit their annual costs to $4,200 per child, suggesting the program's initial purpose could be expanded and income limits eased to allow middle-class families to draw more tax money to private and religious schools, Ward said.

The head of a group that has pushed for the grants said they're needed because too often poor children are stuck in public schools that don't prepare them for graduation and life. The lawsuit is an effort to cling to an unacceptable status quo, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

"We're fighting for the principle that no kid should be forced to attend a school that continues to fail them another year, and we're fighting to ensure that parents have the choice to send their child to a better performing school, whether that school is public or private," he said in a statement.

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