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Teachers, Parents Call North Carolina Vouchers Program Unconstitutional In New Lawsuit

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In North Carolina, the battle over school vouchers is heating up.

A group of plaintiffs sponsored by the bipartisan North Carolina Association of Educators and the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center filed a lawsuit last week, challenging the vouchers created under the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is set to start taking applications in February.

The state’s voucher program was initiated earlier this year as part of the Opportunity Scholarships Act. This legislation was designed to create so-called “opportunity scholarships” made up of taxpayer dollars to help low-income students attend private schools.

However, the lawsuit's 25 plaintiffs, made up of parents, teachers and advocates, claim that the program is unconstitutional and should be halted, according to North Carolina outlet The News & Observer. They say the vouchers violate a section of the state constitution that says money set aside in a state school fund must “be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools," and not private schools.

In addition, opponents of the school voucher program also argue that it siphons money away from traditional public schools in order to fund private schools, and that there is no proof that unregulated private schools better educate children.

Earlier this month, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson claimed that the voucher law could allow for the public financing of terrorist schools.

"With the voucher legislation that we have we could be in dangerous territory as far as taxpayers' dollars going to private schools," said Atkinson, according to local outlet WECT-TV. "There is nothing in the legislation that would prevent someone from establishing a school of terror."

While all private schools that might accept vouchers under the law must be recognized by North Carolina, state law does not require that these schools follow specific academic standards or accountability measures, according to NC Policy Watch.

In opposition to the plaintiffs, Richard Komer of the Institute for Justice, a law firm that partially specializes in school voucher cases, says that money for the program won't come from the school fund plaintiffs say is reserved for public schools, according to investigative news site North Carolina Watchdog.

Proponents of the voucher law say the plaintiffs are trying to keep North Carolina students in failing schools.

State Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) spoke out against the lawsuit in a joint statement obtained by The News & Observer:

Not only are these left-wing interest groups fighting every attempt to improve public education, they now want to trap underprivileged and disabled children in low-performing schools where they will continue to fall behind their peers. ... Their shameful and defeatist mission will only hurt these students and our state.

Students can apply for voucher scholarships starting Feb. 1, 2014, for the 2014 - 2015 school year.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote about left-wing interest groups to Darrell Allison, president of the pro-voucher group Education Freedom in North Carolina. The quote should be attributed to Senator Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Rep. Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg).

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