by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In a 4-3 split, the N.C. Supreme Court has reversed a trial court and upheld North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program as constitutional.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Mark Martin concludes:
To the extent that plaintiffs disagree with the General Assembly’s educational policy decision as expressed in the Opportunity Scholarship Program, their remedy is with the legislature, not the courts. Our review is limited to a determination of whether plaintiffs have demonstrated that the program legislation plainly and clearly violates our constitution. Plaintiffs have made no such showing in this case. Accordingly, the trial court erred in declaring the Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional. We therefore reverse the trial court’s order and final judgment.
Among the arguments Martin addresses is the meaning of Article IX, Section 6 of the state constitution.
The manifest purpose of this section is to protect the “State school fund” in order to preserve and support the public school system, not to limit the State’s ability to spend on education generally. …
… Insofar as the General Assembly appropriates a portion of the State’s general revenues for the public schools, Section 6 mandates that those funds be faithfully used for that purpose. Article IX, Section 6 does not, however, prohibit the General Assembly from appropriating general revenue to support other educational initiatives.
This finding kills another argument from the school voucher opponents.
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.
The court’s majority also rejects critics’ rhetoric.
Plaintiffs’ characterization of the Opportunity Scholarship Program is inaccurate. The Opportunity Scholarship Program legislation does not create “an alternate system of publicly funded private schools.” Rather, this legislation provides modest scholarships to lower-income students for use at nonpublic schools of their choice.
Martin’s opinion explains why money devoted to vouchers does represent spending for a constitutionally sound “public purpose.”
Here, the provision of monetary assistance to lower-income families so that their children have additional educational opportunities is well within the scope of permissible governmental action and is intimately related to the needs of our state’s citizenry. …
… Although the scholarships at issue here are available only to families of modest means, and therefore inure to the benefit of the eligible students in the first instance, and to the designated nonpublic schools in the second, the ultimate beneficiary of providing these children additional educational opportunities is our collective citizenry.
The court’s majority rejects the notion that the Opportunity Scholarship Program somehow violates the basic right to an education in North Carolina.
… [T]here is no merit in the argument that a legislative program designed to increase educational opportunity in our state is one that fails to “guard and maintain” the “right to the privilege of education.”