RALEIGH — A new school voucher program was ruled unconstitutional Thursday by a judge who said taxpayer money should not be used for tuition to private or religious schools.
The scholarship program for low-income families was supposed to start this week, but is now on hold, Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled. It was not immediately clear whether some of the money already distributed would have to be reimbursed.
Advocates said they planned to appeal.
Teachers groups and many of the state’s 115 school boards challenged whether the state can spend public money on K-12 tuition at private or religious schools. Those plaintiffs and the state’s taxpayers would be harmed if the program were allowed to continue, Hobgood said.
The vouchers pay for students to attend schools that are not obliged to meet state curriculum requirements, violating the state constitution’s guarantee for students to have an opportunity to a sound basic education, Hobgood said.
“The Opportunity Scholarships would provide taxpayer funds to private schools without regard to whether these schools satisfy any substantive educational standards. Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose,” Hobgood said.
It’s also unconstitutional for public funds to go to privately run and managed schools, Hobgood said.
Hobgood blocked the state voucher program in February until there could be a trial. The state Supreme Court reversed him in May and allowed implementation to go ahead.
The State Educational Assistance Authority, which was given the task of managing $10 million in government-funded scholarships to students who won a lottery for tuition assistance, planned to distribute the first $728,000 in tuition money for 363 students on Tuesday. An official with the state agency did not immediately respond to messages asking whether any of the money was disbursed.
In June, the state agency moved up the date to distribute tuition funding so that it could do it before Hobgood’s ruling. Educational assistance authority executive director Steven Brooks said the agency decided distributing the money sooner was better, not that they wanted to get out ahead of the judge.
The program’s supporters said they hoped an appeal would let the vouchers continue, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
“While this court decision might represent a temporary roadblock on the path towards educational freedom in North Carolina, I believe it’s just that — temporary,” Allison said in a statement. “We’re going to continue to fight for a parent’s right to choose the educational setting that works best for their children.”
Children seeking the scholarships must qualify for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program, which has an income limit of about $44,000 for a family of four. The grants aren’t available to students already attending private schools.
The General Assembly set aside $10 million last year to give up to $4,200 each for up to 2,400 students.