By Renée Flaherty
In January, IJ intervened to defend North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. Today, the program is up and running because of IJ’s perseverance.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides scholarships of up to $4,200 to low-income families across North Carolina to fund their children’s education at a private school of their choice. Enacted in 2013, the program has had a tumultuous history since two anti-school-choice groups, led by the teachers’ and school boards’ associations, challenged it in two separate lawsuits. The challenges were aimed at crippling the program before it could be implemented, but IJ stepped in and would settle for nothing less than getting the program up and running this fall. IJ intervened on behalf of two families hoping to use the scholarships for their children.
In February of this year, the trial court issued a preliminary injunction halting implementation of the program. After the court of appeals refused to overturn the injunction, IJ succeeded at the North Carolina Supreme Court. But we experienced another setback in August when the trial court paused the program again. With children already in their new schools, IJ petitioned the court of appeals to allow the program to proceed during the appeal. The schools that had accepted the scholarship students were not getting paid, and the children’s futures were at risk.
Fortunately, we succeeded again, and 1,878 students received scholarships. Hundreds of those children are now attending private schools. Because the state did not join IJ’s petition, the program would have been halted and children removed from schools but for IJ’s persistence in the face of multiple setbacks.
The tide is turning, and momentum is shifting in IJ’s favor. In fact, in a rare move, the North Carolina Supreme Court stepped in on its own initiative in October to hear the cases without a decision by the court of appeals. This means that the state supreme court recognizes the importance of resolving the cases quickly, which bodes well for the program.
IJ’s experience in North Carolina exemplifies why we intervene to defend school choice programs. IJ represents the interests of parents who would otherwise have no voice and who count on IJ to soldier on when all others would have accepted defeat.
We will not rest until a final victory in the North Carolina Supreme Court saves the Opportunity Scholarship Program and vindicates every parent’s right to choose the best school for his or her child.
Renée Flaherty is an IJ attorney.