New Lawsuit against School Choice Program

A North Carolina teachers union and fellow defenders of the government’s near-monopoly over education filed a lawsuit against the state’s school voucher program for low-income students, joining half a dozen other lawsuits against educational choice programs around the country. Plaintiffs made the same, tired, factually-inaccurate arguments against letting low-income parents choose where to send their children to school that we’ve come to expect. For example:

“Vouchers are bad public policy,” said Mike Ward, former state school superintendent and one of the plaintiffs. “They tear away millions of dollars that are badly needed by the public schools.”

Apparently no one told Mr. Ward that 22 of 23 studies found that public schools improved their performance in response to the competition that school choice programs generate. The last study found no statistically significant impact. NC’s government-run school system is in dire need of competition. As Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina point out, the latest report card from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction reveals that “nearly 70 percent of low income students in North Carolina failed to meet proficiency standards.”

The lawsuit argues that the voucher program violates Article IX, Section 6 of the North Carolina Constitution, which requires that “all moneys, stocks, bonds, and other property belonging to the State for purposes of public education…and not otherwise appropriated by the State… shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.

Of course, there’s nothing about a voucher program that prevents the legislature from doing exactly that. The NC constitution does not require that the legislature only fund government-run schools, otherwise its heretofore unchallenged college tuition aid programs would be likewise unconstitutional. The NC constitution merely requires that funds set aside for public education must be used for that purpose. The legislature may choose to dedicate other funds to a voucher program, as is has chosen to do, while remaining faithful to the state constitution.

Earlier this year, the Institute for Justice successfully defended Indiana’s school voucher program against a challenge under a similar provision of the Indiana constitution. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that their state’s school voucher program was constitutional because it did not “replace the public school system, which remains in place and available to all Indiana schoolchildren in accordance with the dictates of the Education Clause.” 

The Institute for Justice is considering intervening in the North Carolina lawsuit. Dick Komer, a senior attorney at IJ, noted that the lawsuit ignores the role of parents in choosing the education that best meets their children’s needs:

“Once again, supporters of the public school monopoly have filed a lawsuit to prevent low-income families from having the ability to leave the public schools when they believe their children can receive a better education elsewhere.  Scholarship programs like that challenged in North Carolina simply enable low-income families to exercise the same choice that better-off families have every day – to opt out of public schools for private schools they regard as superior.  As in other lawsuits aimed at thwarting equal educational opportunity, the plaintiffs utterly ignore the critical role played by the parents of children eligible for scholarships.  This is deplorable.”

North Carolina’s school voucher program may not be the ideal educational choice policy, but that’s a debate for the state legislature, not the courts.