PUBLISHED:February 24, 2014

Clinic report on private schools plays role in N.C. voucher case

A new report issued by Duke’s Children’s Law Clinic played a role in the decision of a state Superior Court Judge to enjoin North Carolina’s new school voucher program on February 21.  The report, compiled and written under the direction of Clinical Professor of Law Jane Wettach, offers insight into the types of schools where taxpayer funds would be spent under the new voucher program.

The report, Characteristics of North Carolina Private Schools, presents the results of an extensive survey of private schools in North Carolina.  Kristi Lundstrom ’14, helped design the survey during the Fall 2013 semester as part of her work in the Children’s Law Clinic.  Volunteer law students from both Duke Law School and the University of North Carolina Law School gathered the data in December and January. Current Children’s Law Clinic participants Susan Walker ’14, Nichole Davis ’15, and Shamus Hyland ‘14 assisted Wettach in analyzing the data and creating the report.  The students also observed the court hearings.

“It was an incredible learning experience to be involved in the preparation for the voucher litigation, and listen to the legal analyses and discussions on strategy,” Lundstrom said.  “It was also very exciting to see our work being used in a meaningful way at the hearing. It has been an amazingly valuable practical learning experience for me.”

The study of North Carolina’s private schools came about after the N.C. General Assembly passed legislation in 2013 to create a school voucher program in North Carolina.  The voucher program allows certain families to get a government-funded stipend of up to $4,200 per year per child to apply to private school tuition.  Two lawsuits were filed in December challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program under the North Carolina constitution.  On February 17, Judge Robert Hobgood denied the state’s motions to dismiss the lawsuits. On February 21, Hobgood granted the plaintiffs’ motions for preliminary injunction.  The voucher program, which was scheduled to go into effect for the 2014-15 school year, is on hold while the litigation continues.

The Characteristics of North Carolina Private Schools report was presented to the court when it heard the Motions for Preliminary Injunction.  The report shows that a large majority of the schools whose tuition could be fully paid for with a voucher are very small religious schools that do not hire certified teachers and do not follow state curricular standards.  North Carolina is one of several states in the U.S. that has very minimal regulation of private schools, making them relatively unaccountable to the public. Lawyers for the plaintiffs used data from the report to argue that using public money to fund private schools does not meet the constitutional standards for using tax money for “public purposes only.”

Clinic student Aly Rutsch ’15 was in the courtroom in Raleigh for the hearings on the pending motions. She reported that during the oral argument for the preliminary injunction on Friday, attorneys for the plaintiffs cited several facts from the report created by the Duke Children's Law Clinic. “These facts, such as that some of the schools eligible for vouchers have fewer than five students, influenced the judge and generated audible gasps from many of the people in the court room.  I felt proud that the hard work of my colleagues in the Clinic influenced the favorable outcomes in this case so far for the plaintiffs.” 


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Wettach: N.C. voucher money likely to go to unaccountable religious institutions | News and Observer