Parents Look to Overturn NC’s Private School Voucher Program, Alleging Religious Discrimination

Seven NC plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of the state's Opportunity Scholarship voucher program for private schools. (Image via Shutterstock)

By jenniferbringle

July 28, 2020

Seven NC plaintiffs file suit questioning the constitutionality of NC’s Opportunity Scholarship program for private schools.

“They sell these vouchers as a ‘choice’ for parents, but they are not a choice for my family,” says Rivca “Rikki” Rachel SaNogeuira in a statement. “It is galling that my tax dollars are funding private schools where my family is not welcome because of our faith.”

SaNogeuira, a Jewish resident of Durham who’s raising her daughter in the Jewish faith, says her child is not allowed to enroll in any of NC’s private schools requiring students to be Christian. Yet those same schools are eligible for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, a private school voucher initiative that spends millions of public dollars each year.

That’s why SaNogeuria joined on as one of seven plaintiffs in a new lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of NC’s controversial private school voucher program.

‘I just don’t think I should have to sacrifice my personal beliefs for my child to get an education.’

Another plaintiff, Amanda Howell, notes every private school near her home in Randolph County is a Christian school, some with explicit policies barring non-Christians such as Howell. 

“I just don’t think I should have to sacrifice my personal beliefs for my child to get an education,” Howell said in a statement. “There isn’t a single non-religious private school in my entire county. My tax dollars are paying for these vouchers, but I cannot use them because there is literally nowhere for me to spend it. My son has special needs that local public schools could not accommodate, but maybe if my local school had the money that is being spent on these vouchers, they would be able to help more children who need it.”

These arguments are at the core of the new suit, which was filed Monday morning in Wake County Superior Court. The seven plaintiffs were backed by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the state’s largest teacher advocacy organization, and the National Education Association (NEA).

The voucher program provides students $4,200 per year to pay for a portion of tuition at a private school. Backers say the Republican-spearheaded initiative offers another choice for parents, and affords some low-income families the same choice. Opponents of the vouchers say the program diminishes the quality of public education in the state by redirecting funds to private institutions. 

The private school voucher program has expanded significantly since it was implemented in 2013. During the 2019-2020 school year, the State Education Assistance Authority provided 12,284 vouchers to private schools. And under lawmakers’ plan to boost voucher funding by $10 million each year, the state is scheduled to budget $144.8 million in 2027-2028.

Many schools participating in the Opportunity Scholarship program follow a religion-based curriculum, and some even openly admit to discriminating on the basis of religion, requiring students to sign statements affirming particular religious beliefs, and reserving the right to discipline students who fail to attend religious services or whose beliefs deviate from the school’s official religious doctrine.

Some schools also discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and require students to maintain religious beliefs condemning homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and gender non-conformity. 

NC’s state Constitution includes a bar against religious discrimination that does not appear in the US Constitution. In North Carolina, no person shall “be subjected to discrimination by the state because of race, color, religion, or national origin,” it reads. The lawsuit argues the state violates these commands when it funds schools that discriminate on the basis of religion, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.

“Our intent as an organization is to have high-quality public education for every student,” Tamika Walker Kelly, president of NCAE and one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, told Cardinal & Pine. “And we know and have been saying for a while as an organization that vouchers take money from our public school system, which is even more detrimental during the pandemic.”

Walker Kelly said private schools funded through this program are not subject to any meaningful requirements of performance and are able to hire unqualified teachers due to lack of oversight at the state level. Because of that, as well as a host of other reasons — including financial hardship due to vouchers only covering a portion of tuition — a significant number of students often return to the public school system after attending private institutions.

“We’ve seen students who have gone to these private schools, and they are significantly behind academically compared to the other students when they return back to the public school system,” said Walker Kelly. 

For Walker Kelly—a public school teacher in Fayetteville with a son attending public school—and the other plaintiffs, the ultimate goal is to ensure every student in North Carolina has access to education that will prepare them for a successful future.

“Really what we would like is for public dollars to stay in public schools to make sure we’re giving every child high-quality public education that’s rich with choice already,” said Walker Kelly. “We need to do that with the funds that are stripped by these private school vouchers.”


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