In a long-awaited ruling that bolsters the future of school choice in North Carolina, the State Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In its 4 to 3 opinion issued July 23, the state’s highest court reversed a lower court ruling that said the program, which allows lower income families to apply for scholarship grants to help cover the costs of sending their children to participating non-public schools, violated the North Carolina Constitution.
The N.C. Association of Educators and N.C. School Boards Association challenged the Opportunity Scholarship Program in two lawsuits, which alleged that it violated the State Constitution by directing public funds to private and religious schools. In August 2014, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the program is unconstitutional, permanently enjoining the State from dispersing any funds for the scholarship grants. However, that December, the State Supreme Court issued an order allowing the program to proceed while the legal battle continued. In March 2015, the North Carolina Family Policy Council joined eight other pro-family organizations in filing a friend of the court brief in the case, encouraging the high court to uphold the school choice program.
According to the majority decision written by Chief Justice Mark Martin, “the trial court erred in declaring the Opportunity Scholarship program unconstitutional,” in part, because the program “was funded from general revenues, not from sources of funding that Section 6 [of the NC Constitution] reserves for our public schools.” Additionally, Chief Justice Martin explained that, “Because public funds may be spent on educational initiatives outside of the uniform system of free public schools, plaintiffs’ contention that funding for the Opportunity Scholarship Program should have gone to the public schools—and therefore been brought under the supervision and administration of the State Board of Education—is without merit.”
Addressing the constitutional requirement that the funds meet a public rather than a private purpose, the Court said: “The promotion of education generally, and educational opportunity in particular, is of paramount public importance to our state…Although the scholarships at issue here are available only to families of modest means, and therefore inure to the benefit of the eligible students… and to the designated nonpublic schools…, the ultimate beneficiary of providing these children additional educational opportunities is our collective citizenry.”
The Court then cited an earlier North Carolina case “…recognizing that an expenditure providing an “incidental private benefit” is for a public purpose if it serves “a primary public goal”…Accordingly, the appropriations made by the General Assembly for the Opportunity Scholarship Program were for a public purpose…”
In a statement, Rep. Paul Stam (R–Wake) said that during the 2014-15 school year, Opportunity Scholarships were awarded to 1,200 students to attend 224 schools, and that over 1,100 of these students have reapplied, along with 4,800 new applicants, for the next school year.
“More families will now have realistic access to educational options for their children,” said Rep. Stam. “We will work to expand funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program this legislative session so more parents can choose the right educational setting for their children. I hope that families will take advantage of the program and continue to apply for the upcoming school year.”
Information on North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is available here.