Vouchers for Private Schools: A Bad Idea Then, A Bad Idea Now

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The News & Record is out with an editorial on North Carolina's controversial 'Opportunity Scholarship' program. Doug Clark, the editorial's author, notes that this program, found unconstitutional by a Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood for providing public funding to private institutions, also allows for public funds to be spent on religious schools. In addition, Judge Hobgood commented on the program's lack of accountability, citing a conflict with a previous ruling requiring the state to be responsible for providing quality education for all children. Clark starts with a history of how this program is tied to North Carolina's efforts to avoid implementing national desegregation laws in the 1950s. From the editorial,

The idea of school vouchers isn’t new in North Carolina. In 1956, the state enacted a program to provide private school tuition grants for children whose parents didn’t want them to attend integrated schools.

When North Carolina’s current “Opportunity Scholarship” program is argued before the state Supreme Court Feb. 17, the Pearsall Plan is likely to come up. It relates strongly to the legal issues at stake today.

When the U.S. Supreme Court released its blockbuster Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, North Carolina leaders quickly decided not to comply. Yet, most didn’t favor outright defiance.

A special committee headed by Thomas Pearsall, former speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, recommended a devious course of action.

As adopted by the legislature in July 1956, it stated: “Our people need to be assured that no child will be forced to attend a school with children of another race in order to get an education. It is the purpose of the State of North Carolina to make available ... education expense grants for the private education of any child of any race residing in this State.”

This applied if there were no segregated school the child could reasonably attend. The private school had to be “nonsectarian” and meet certain standards. The grant would be limited to the amount the public schools would spend for the same student.

But the intent was perfectly clear. Rather than implement the court’s order, the state was willing to abandon its public schools and pay for the private education of its children.

The one catch was that this scheme required rewriting the state constitution. The legislature proposed language approving the expenditure of public funds for private education, “not withstanding any other provision of this Constitution,” and put it to a statewide vote in September 1956. It was approved overwhelmingly, to the discredit of North Carolina voters.

But it was never implemented. The state managed to drag its feet so stubbornly on desegregation that there was no need to buy white children’s way out of the public schools. By the time the schools did begin to integrate more than a decade later, the Pearsall Plan had been struck down in federal court.

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