Thursday, September 04, 2014

Hypocrisy in the NC school choice lawsuit

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

A North Carolina judge has decided that the state’s school choice scholarship is unconstitutional.

Of course the case is being appealed as is the permanent injunction which would put an immediate stop to the program and kick some kids out of their chosen schools.

But what’s unusual about this case is the hypocrisy by those who sued to stop the program.

You see, this school choice scholarship allows kids to attend private schools – including religious ones.

In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) and provided $10.8 million out of the general fund budget to cover scholarships of up to $4,200 for eligible children so they could attend a private school.

There were more than 5,500 applicants for the OSP so the state held a lottery in June to determine who would get the scholarships.

The fact that there wasn’t enough money to meet the need says a lot.

Applicants had to list the school they wanted to attend. Of the 446 identified, 322 were religious schools and 117 were independent schools.

According to the lawsuit, in 32 of the state’s 100 counties, the only private schools are religious ones, and some of them will only admit students of a particular religion. As of July, the 10 schools with the most OSP enrollees were religious ones.

And that’s the problem.

Certainly, there are complaints that some of the private schools are not accredited by the state board of education and don’t follow the same requirements as public schools when it comes to credentials or degrees for teachers and principals. But part of the appeal of private schools is that they don't have to follow one-size-fits-all criteria.

True, the state constitution does have specific language about public education. But the legislature replaced the $10.8 million it originally deducted from the public school budget in order to negate the constitutional challenge about funding public education.

The bigger issue is religion. And that’s where the hypocrisy comes in.

You see, according to some, the state is funding religion with public tax dollars and that’s a no-no to them.

Except that’s not really true. Technically, the money is going to the child – or rather, the child’s parents – in order to give back to them the state tax dollars they pay toward their child’s education. The parent then chooses how to best spend that money and, for some, that’s in a private religious school.

Karen Duquette, vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said the goal of the program is for every child to have the education that best fits their individual needs. She noted that a similar program for children with disabilities hasn’t been challenged in court and it operates the same way as the OSP.

The intent, she said, is to start educational choice with an underserved community.

“If you like your school, you don’t have to leave it,” she explained. “But if that school isn’t working for you, without some form of scholarship opportunity, you’re stuck in that school. Our obligation is to help every child, whether low income or with disabilities, so every child has access to the education that’s best for them.”

So you’ve got parents receiving funds from the state and then choosing how best to spend those funds and some of that spending happens to be at a religious institution.

How is that any different from food stamps?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides funds for parents to purchase food. No one tells the parent they can’t exercise their choice and purchase junk food.

And what about TANF – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families?

Under that program, the government hands out cash and the family can spend it in any way that benefits the child, including the parent’s transportation and employment expenses. A parent could choose to use those funds for costs associated with a religious vacation bible school, if they wanted.

Choices abound everywhere. These are just two examples where parents get to choose how their spend government subsidies or handouts based upon their own judgment as to what is best, including religion-related activities.

But no one sues over those decisions, even though some of them are more harmful to children than sending them to a religiously-sponsored grade school.

That’s hypocrisy.

Either parents get to decide or they don’t. And if they get to decide how they spend their SNAP and TANF funds, they should get to decide how they spend their education funds as well.

Fortunately for the children – it’s “for the children” after all – already enrolled for this school year, almost all of the schools will allow them to stay while the permanent injunction against the scholarship program is appealed, Duquette said. She hoped the North Carolina Supreme Court would quickly overrule the permanent injunction as they did the temporary injunction that was previously issued.

The unconstitutionality ruling is also being appealed.

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