Citizen Green: Who decides for students?

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

Is the underlying motivation of the school-choice movement to siphon money out of struggling public schools for the benefit of private schools system for the wealthy? Or, as its proponents claim, is the purpose to provide poor students who have been failed by public education with a viable alternative?

A ruling last week by Judge Robert Hobgood, who sits on the superior court bench in Wake County, delivered a victory for opponents of school vouchers, but sends a conflicted message that suggests this is far from the last word on the matter.

So-called Opportunity Scholarships, or vouchers, were established through a $10 million appropriation by the state General Assembly last year that would provide $4,200 apiece to low-income students selected through a lottery process to attend private schools. Hobgood ruled that the program violates the state constitution, among other reasons because it “appropriates [funds] to private schools grades K-12… that should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

At the urging of black Democratic lawmakers such as Rep. Marcus Brandon of Guilford County the Republican lawmakers established means-testing for the vouchers so that in the first year the income ceiling would be set at $43,568 for a family of four. But after the 2014-15 school year, the ceiling would be raised to $57,945 for a family of four — far above the threshold to qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. It’s easy to conclude then that the Republican lawmakers in the majority want to expand the program, giving ammunition to critics who believe it is a broad assault on public education.

“It’s basically a smokescreen to siphon off students who are already engaged,” Mark Jewell, vice president of the NC Association of Educators, told the News & Observer in June. “It’s siphoning off dollars from public schools that are already cash-strapped with resources that have been cut to the bare bones.”

The NC NAACP filed a friend-of-court brief comparing Opportunity Scholarships to a failed segregationist scheme in the ’50s called the Pearsall Plan, which would have allowed local public school systems to shut down while providing vouchers to white students to attend private schools.

“The extremists’ attack on public education is a blatant attempt to further drain our schools of resources,” it reads. “It will not help the great majority of black and other children of color, who will be further isolated and stranded in under-funded public schools.”

The critiques put forward by both Jewell and the NAACP frame the children left behind in public schools as the victims in the voucher program.

But Hobgood made it clear in his Aug. 21 ruling that he doesn’t see it that way.

“It appears to this court that the General Assembly is seeking to push at-risk students from low-income families into non-public schools in order to avoid the cost of providing them a sound basic education in public schools as mandated by the Leandro decision,” he said, reading the order from the bench.

The wording of Hobgood’s ruling last week was oddly paternalistic.

Noting that the state is required to provide a sound basic education, the judge went on to say, “The General Assembly cannot constitutionally delegate this responsibility to unregulated private schools by use of taxpayer Opportunity Scholarships to low-income parents who have self-assessed their children to be at risk.”

Self-assessed.

The modifier “self” implies that the party undertaking the action is not the person who would normally make such an assessment. Who better to assess whether children are being adequately served by the public-education system than their parents? Is the matter best left up to the experts at the state Department of Public Instruction?

Questioning the judgment of parents who want the best for their children plays right into the hands of the conservatives who argue that parents rather than bureaucrats are best entrusted with decisions about their children’s education. Hobgood’s disdain for low-income parents’ “self-assessment” of their children’s educational needs is likely to prompt a backlash and inspire a new wave of parents seeking educational alternatives.

A lot of what Hobgood said about why the program is unconstitutional rings true — it appropriates funding outside the administration of the State Board of Education, creates a non-uniform system of education, appropriates taxpayer funds to schools that have no standards and publicly funds schools that discriminate on account of religion.

He didn’t have to insult parents in the process.