By Harriet McLeod
(Reuters) - A North Carolina judge on Thursday blocked the state's new school voucher program, saying it unconstitutionally diverted money from public education to private schools, many of them religious.
The Opportunity Scholarship program, designed to give poor and middle-class families public funds to help pay private school tuition, was passed by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature last year and had already begun operating.
School vouchers have drawn criticism from those who say they drain money from public schools and subsidize overtly religious education. Supporters say they offer parents more choices on where to educate their children.
In his order blocking the program, Judge Robert Hobgood said it diverted money that under the state constitution can only be used for public schools.
Some of that money was going to private schools that discriminate based on religious affiliation, he added. Backers of North Carolina's $10 million voucher program said they planned to appeal the ruling and would seek to reverse the judge's order suspending the program as the case works its way through the courts.
“We will do everything in our power to ensure that today’s decision is merely another speed bump on the way to victory at the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Richard Komer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based pro-voucher legal center representing two parents in the case, said in a statement.
North Carolina's attorney general also plans to appeal the ruling, a spokeswoman said.
About 20 states offer some form of school vouchers, with most of those programs having survived legal challenges, Komer said.
The legal challenge to the program was filed by a group of public school teachers and administrators.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky, Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney)
[Image: "Bored girl sitting at desk in the classroom," via Shutterstock]