Diverting public money to private schools is a bad idea. But is it unconstitutional? There is a difference.
More than two dozen parents, teachers and advocates filed suit Wednesday against the "opportunity scholarships" the legislature created this year. Those provide $4,200 scholarships to low-income students to attend private school beginning next fall.
Burton Craige, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, cites the language in Article IX, Section 6 of the N.C. Constitution referring to public money being used "exclusively" for public schools. "We're going to ask (the court) to declare that 'exclusively' means exclusively," Craige said in the (Raleigh) News & Observer.
But let's look at the full passage that Craige is referring to. Here it is:
"The proceeds of all lands that have been or hereafter may be granted by the United States to this State, and not otherwise appropriated by this State or the United States; all moneys, stocks, bonds, and other property belonging to the State for purposes of public education; the net proceeds of all sales of the swamp lands belonging to the State; and all other grants, gifts, and devises that have been or hereafter may be made to the State, and not otherwise appropriated by the State or by the terms of the grant, gift or devise, shall be paid into the State Treasury and, together with so much of the revenue of the State as may be set apart for that purpose, shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools."
That appears quite different from saying public money must be used exclusively for public schools and not private ones. The section refers to that money "belonging to the State for purposes of public education" and money "as may be set apart for that purpose." That seems to say that money intended for public schools must go to public schools; it doesn't necessarily prohibit other money from going to private school vouchers.
These vouchers are bad public policy, as plaintiff Mike Ward, a former state schools superintendent, argues. They shift millions of dollars that the public schools need. There's little accountability. It's not at all clear that they are effective in closing the achievement gap.
And they may be unconstitutional in some way. But the context of Article IX, Section 6, suggests any unconstitutionality will have to hinge on more than the word "exclusively."
-- Taylor Batten