February 17, 2014 at 7:25 AM
A North Carolina trial judge was scheduled Monday to hold the first hearing in a challenge against a new law that would let low-income parents send their children to private or religious schools with taxpayer money.
The North Carolina Association of Educators and the group representing the state's 115 school boards filed separate lawsuits. They argue the annual grants of up to $4,200 per child for the academic year starting in August amount to ``vouchers'' that fund a separate education system and violate the state constitution. It says school funding should be used exclusively for running ``a uniform system of free public schools.''
The North Carolina School Boards Association also said the law fails to require private schools to meet any meaningful educational standards and would allow the money to be used at schools that don't discriminate in their admissions.
State attorneys and a libertarian legal defense group that wants to represent parents eager for the program argue the first of what are officially called opportunity scholarships should be awarded as scheduled on March 1.
The libertarian Institute for Justice is representing two parents who have applied for scholarships for their children and want to join the lawsuit on the side of state attorneys working to preserve it.
``Despite plaintiffs' efforts to cast this program as one created for the benefit of unaccountable private schools, this case is really about the plaintiffs' efforts to force the parents' children to remain in public schools with which the parents are dissatisfied,'' the institute's lawyers wrote in court documents filed last week.
The program will provide scholarships to as many as 2,400 children. Applications for the program began earlier this month.
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.