As the school year begins in North Carolina, many students don't know whether they'll be allowed to attend the schools of their parents' choice or the traditional public schools they tried to opt out of.
A Superior Court judge Thursday struck down the state's new voucher program, which was set to launch this year. Attorneys at the Institute for Justice (IJ), which has intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of North Carolina parents, are working on an appeal.
The voucher program, which state lawmakers passed last year, provides scholarships to help low-income families afford private school tuition.
Kena Cooper, one such mom, told Watchdog she wanted to transfer her son in part because of the treatment he received from his public school classmates.
"He has experienced being bullied, beat up, jumped on ever since he's been in the state school system," she said. "I've gone and talked to teachers and talked to counselors and talked to principals and talked to superintendents. It's just really ridiculous. It's been so many different reasons why they can't really do anything or they're doing their best."
"The only thing the student can do is stay and bear with it, and I don't think that's right," she said.
Like other parents, Cooper must decide to risk paying tuition at the private school, which she does not believe she can afford, or return her son to his public school, where he was bullied and did not receive an adequate education.
Despite Thursday's setback, Richard Komer, senior attorney for IJ, said he expects parents will win in court, though it's unclear how long that may take.
The judge, Robert Hobgood, issued an injunction several months ago, temporarily stopping the program while parents were completing their applications. After a series of appeals, the state's Supreme Court stayed the injunction, allowing the program to continue as courts sort it out on constitutional grounds.
The state Supreme Court has already issued a preliminary ruling in favor of the program, and Komer said he expects a favorable final ruling from the high court this time. Because of the importance of the case, it may skip the appeals court and move directly to the Supreme Court, he said.
The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) gathered a slew of plaintiffs to file suit against the program, claiming it was unconstitutional because it directed public education money to private schools. While the state's constitution allocates a certain amount of money for public education, funding for the voucher program comes from a different source, Komer said.
The association, an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), applauded the ruling, saying private schools are "unaccountable." In a phone interview with Watchdog, NCAE president Rodney Ellis said accountability included teacher certification, school accreditation, testing, lunch, and transportation.
"Accountability is a huge factor when you don't know whether students are getting an adequate education," he said.
Cooper said her son's teachers seemed more focused on money than on helping him learn. Her son is one of 2,000 students who had already enrolled in the program.
"Today's ruling strikes at the heart of what thousands of North Carolina families have been fighting for over the past several months," Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in a statement. "There is no doubt that the families, for whom this program is targeted, desperately desire this program. … It is difficult to accept the idea that a certain number of children will be forced to languish in an educational setting that isn't working for them."
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