- Associated Press - Monday, September 29, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The first million dollars have been sent to private and religious schools across North Carolina while an appeals court considers a judge’s ruling that a new scholarship program for low-income public school children is unconstitutional.

About $1.1 million was distributed last Friday to 109 private schools that accepted students under the Opportunity Scholarships program, State Educational Assistance Authority grants director Elizabeth McDuffie said Monday. That distribution was to cover part of the tuition for 568 students, according to the state agency administering the program.

The schools were primarily Christian, Baptist, Catholic or Islamic. The Greensboro Islamic Academy received the most money, $90,300 for 43 enrolled students. Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh received $54,600 for 26 students.

“It’s huge for those families, no doubt about it,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which fought for the program. “North Carolina has crossed over with the other 16 states and the District of Columbia of actually providing funds for low-income families who see non-public schools as an option.”

The money was disbursed a week after the state Court of Appeals allowed funds to be spent for nearly 1,900 students in the pipeline before Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood’s ruling last month. The students had qualified for and accepted grants of up to $4,200 to attend to the private schools that accepted them. In most cases, the schools decided to keep the students enrolled rather than send them back to public schools until this month’s appeals court decision.

The appeals court blocked the rest of the program pending a decision on whether the program conforms to the state constitution.

Tuition funds for the remaining roughly 1,300 students won’t be distributed for at least a couple of weeks as its check vendor completes a software conversion, McDuffie said.

The General Assembly set aside $10.8 million this year to give scholarships to more than 2,500 students who would be newcomers to private schools. The children had to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program. More than 300 private schools were expected to collect tuition payments.

Hobgood blocked the funds after finding constitutional violations including that religious schools could discriminate based on faith on who they would enroll and no requirements that privately run K-12 schools meet state curriculum standards.

Program proponents say the scholarships would give poor students in routinely low-performing public schools a better chance to succeed.

The appeals court ruling marked a victory for suing parents, who wanted to send their children to private schools, and attorneys hired by state House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who wanted the new program running this fall.

Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office is defending the state law creating the voucher program, but declined to fight for the money to be released until courts decide whether the program is constitutional. A top Cooper deputy counseled Tillis and Berger in March that releasing the money quickly could lead to later collection efforts to recover the money if the scholarships are ultimately determined to be unconstitutional.

“Everybody’s on notice that the court has already ruled at the trial level it’s unconstitutional,” said Robert Orr, an attorney representing dozens of local school districts and the North Carolina School Boards Association. “In the long run, if the trial court’s decision is affirmed, then we would look to the state to recover the public’s money. You have to emphasize that it is the public’s money that we’re talking about.”

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio


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