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The state Supreme Court is about to decide whether millions of dollars in taxpayer money that started flowing this year to pay student tuition at private and religious schools continues for a second year.

The state's highest court hears arguments Tuesday on a ruling last summer that the Opportunity Scholarships program violates the state constitution because religious schools can discriminate based on faith. Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood also said privately run K-12 schools are not required to meet state curriculum standards.

Supreme Court justices showed they're in a hurry to decide whether private school vouchers will continue by latching on to the case early. Parents are already looking ahead and the deadline for them to submit scholarship applications for the next academic year is March 1.

So far, more than $4.2 million has paid for 1,200 students to attend 216 private schools around the state, according to the State Education Assistance Authority. That's a fraction of the 5,500 students whose families sought one of the scholarships, said Darrell Allison, who heads a group that advocates for expanding the program. Three out of four applicants for the vouchers, which pay private schools up to $4,200 per child per year to schools that admit them, were minority students.

"There are literally thousands of families who are looking forward to their day in court — desperately hopeful for a favorable ruling," Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in a statement.

The program opened this year to families whose income qualified their children for free or discounted school lunches, a ceiling of about $44,000 for a family of four. Eligibility increases for the year starting in August as the ceiling rises to nearly $59,000 per family.

Opponents of the voucher law complain that it violates the constitution because money from collected taxes goes to religious schools that have the option of ruling out students who don't follow their faith's beliefs, turning away the disabled or refusing the children of gay parents.


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