A North Carolina judge ordered that state to stop using taxpayer money to pay for tuition at private or religious schools, but his Thursday ruling is not expected to affect a new South Carolina program that helps students attending similar schools.
Wake County, N.C., Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the program is unconstitutional on several levels. Voucher advocates say they will appeal the decision.
Hobgood says the program pays for students to attend schools that are not obliged to meet state curriculum requirements, violating the state constitution's guarantee for students to have an opportunity for a sound basic education.
Hobgood said it's also unconstitutional for public funds to go to privately run and managed schools. The state agency managing the funds says money that was planned for distribution earlier this week was stopped.
But South Carolina's program does not involve public money going to private schools in the form of vouchers.
Instead, the state's program gives tax credits to residents and businesses who donate to nonprofit organizations - organizations that in turn provide financial help for special needs students attending certain private and religious schools.
Neil Mellen of Access Opportunity South Carolina, a nonprofit that supports the state's new school choice program, said that is an important difference.
"The foundations of the program in North Carolina are importantly, legally and functionally quite different from South Carolina's," he said.
A year ago, the Legislature passed a one-year trial program allowing South Carolina taxpayers to redirect part of their income tax - up to $8 million across the state - to help special needs children attend private schools.
At least 447 different individuals and corporations donated more than $5.4 million and helped more than 400 families with such children lower their tuition costs by as much as $10,000.
That program was continued at the $8 million level for the current year.
At least a dozen states and the District of Columbia provide state-funded school vouchers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina's program was funded with $10 million, and its State Educational Assistance Authority planned to distribute the first $728,000 in tuition money to schools for 363 students this week. None of that money was given out, said the agency's grants director Elizabeth McDuffie.
Hobgood blocked North Carolina's voucher program in February until there could be a trial. The state Supreme Court reversed him in May and allowed implementation to go ahead.
The program's supporters hoped an appeal would let the vouchers continue, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
"While this court decision might represent a temporary roadblock on the path towards educational freedom in North Carolina, I believe it's just that - temporary," Allison said in a statement. "We're going to continue to fight for a parent's right to choose the educational setting that works best for their children."
While South Carolina's tax credit special needs program has its detractors, no one has challenged in court, said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, a major supporter of the program.
And Grooms said the state's Supreme Court already has upheld the legality of a tax credit being used at a private or religious institution - much like those being used in the new special needs program.
"Vouchers can have state strings attached," he said. "Tax credits cannot."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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