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Wednesday, 29 January 2014 14:46

Private schools, public money, heated discourse: School stakeholders debate new N.C. voucher program

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coverIt’s been six months since the N.C. General Assembly passed a budget earmarking $10 million for school vouchers to low-income students, but the issue is just heating up in Western North Carolina. On Jan. 9, Macon County became the first school district in the four-county region to add its name to a lawsuit decrying the program as unconstitutional, but they’re not the only ones talking about it. 

In a unanimous vote at the Jan. 28 school board meeting, Jackson County also added its name to the litigation, and Haywood County discussed the issue at its Jan. 13 meeting when chairman Chuck Francis made an impassioned request that the board vote to join the lawsuit. However, the vote died on the floor without a motion to carry it forward. Swain County’s school board has not discussed the issue, and its next meeting is not until Feb. 10.  

 

Chris Baldwin, superintendent of Macon County Schools, believes that North Carolina’s school boards are doing the right thing.

“If it’s about school choice, I can understand that, but let’s fund public schools before we’re providing public dollars to private schools,” he said, “and if we’re going to do that, let’s hold them to the same accountability.”

Baldwin and other area superintendents say it’s irresponsible to implement the program against its backdrop of declining school funding and increasing requirements. Others, though, maintain that vouchers are just a mechanism to give families the power to make the choices they’re entitled to. 

“Parents know their children, and we should all realize that the school in our district may be exactly what our child needs, or it may not be,” said Blake Stanberry, headmaster of Haywood Christian Academy. 

 

The law

The voucher law, which began life as the Opportunity Scholarship Act under House Bill 944, was passed under the state’s general statutes as Article 39 115C Part2A and is included in the state’s two-year budget plan. On Feb. 1, applications will open to provide vouchers for about 2,500 low-income children in North Carolina to attend a private school of their choice. The two-year budget allocates $10 million for 2013-14 and $40 million for the following year, with all funds coming from the general education fund. 

To qualify, students must come from a family that makes no more than 133 percent of the amount required to qualify for free or reduced lunch. That’s a criterion that applies to hundreds of thousands of children across the state, but the $10 million allocated for the coming year will cover only about 2,500 children. So, though Jackson County Schools alone have more than 2,000 children who qualify for free and reduced lunch, the voucher law would not result in a “mass exodus,” said Darrell Allison, president of Raleigh-based Parents for Educational Freedom. 

“The vast majority of them decide to remain in a traditional public school system, and that’s a good thing,” Allison said. 

“It’s more of a program to help families that have children who are going to a school that is not a good fit for them but they can’t afford to go anywhere else,” Stanberry added. 

 

Opportunities for low-income students

Options for a better fit are needed, and quickly, Allison believes. When he looks at the results of 2012-13 testing, which show that only 29.5 percent of test scores posted by low-income North Carolina students qualify as “proficient,” compared to 44.7 percent amongst the general population, Allison sees a necessity for immediate action. He believes that school vouchers are a viable solution. 

“If you’re going to dismiss Opportunity Scholarships as being an option for low-income students, what is your alternative?” he said. 

Opponents of the program, however, say that it would further discriminate between low-income and affluent students, because the vouchers would deliver significantly less money than necessary to fully cover the cost of tuition at a quality private school and compensate for the other benefits — such as meals, transportation and afterschool care —that public schools provide for free or at reduced cost. 

“It’s kind of a ruse in a way, because the voucher is not nearly enough to go to a private school,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, who voted against the bill. 

It is true $4,200 does not cover tuition and fees for all private schools. Haywood Christian Academy, for example, charges tuition of $5,190 to $6,425 per year, depending on grade level. However, other schools in the area charge tuition in the $2,000-$3,000 range, so using a private school would not necessarily require parents to supplement the vouchers with their own money. But the vouchers would also make upper-tier private schools more accessible, if that was a choice parents decided to make, Stanberry pointed out. 

“That $4,200 goes a long way toward a private school tuition,” he said. 

 

Effects to public schools

But while public school proponents agree that private school is the best choice for some children, they’re upset about how the Opportunity Scholarship program will affect public school budgets. When students transfer out of the public school system, they take with them the per-student allotment that the district would otherwise have received to educate them. 

“Anytime we lose money, no matter what the reason, it’s difficult for public schools to offer what they can offer,” said Mike Murray, superintendent of Jackson County Schools.

To superintendents like Murray and Baldwin, it’s particularly upsetting that the voucher program is coming on board at a time when schools are already strapped for cash. Since 2008, Jackson County’s per student allotment from the state has fallen from $6,145 to $5,833. In Macon County, the number has fluctuated from $6,093 in 2008-09 to $5,597 in 2010-11, and back up to $6,029 in 2012-13.

“If 10 students, spread across grade levels, leave the district to attend a private school on a voucher, they take with them more than $60,000 in state funding that helps to pay teacher and school administrator salaries,” Baldwin said. “However, the district will still have to employ the same number of teachers and administrators, at the same salaries, as before those students left.”

Recently, local schools have been making do with increasingly smaller budgets for staff and materials. This year, Macon County is operating at a $1.6 million budget shortfall, which forced it to cut 14 teaching positions, drop 10 teaching assistant positions and slash its textbook purchases by 75 percent and instructional materials by 50 percent, among other reductions. 

“They’re saying, ‘We’re not funding you to the levels you need to serve 4,400 kids,’ and at the same time they were able to find $10 million for private schools,” Baldwin said. 

Allison, however, contends that $10 million is not a cost — it’s an allotment. Voucher students are awarded scholarships for no more than $4,200, while state per student allotments in this region are about half again as much as that. But there’s nothing in the law that says the savings will go back into the public schools, and opponents of the voucher program say that it won’t really save anything, anyway, because skimming 2,500 students from a statewide population of 1.5 million won’t decrease teaching and administration costs. 

According to Queen, that’s the wrong way to look at it, anyway.

“[Voucher supporters] have the mistaken notion that if you take people out of school, that saves us money,” he said. “What saves the state money is investing in their students.”

Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County Schools Board of Education, agrees. 

“I took an oath of office to support public education, and therefore in my mind anything that is going to take away from the opportunities our students have in Haywood County, I’m going to be against it,” said Francis. 

 

Individual choice versus the common good? 

But legislators such as Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, who voted for the voucher program, sees the program as merely allowing families to use their own tax dollars to make the best choice for their children. 

“I think anybody that wants to make a decision to go to a private school, they ought to be able to do it, and they ought to be able to recoup what the state allocates for each student,” said Marble, whose district includes Macon County. 

Yevonne Brennan, chair of the board of directors for Public Schools First NC, says that’s a shortsighted view. 

“That’s not looking at the overall benefit for the common good,” she said. “Should I say, ‘Let’s give everybody money to buy a snow shovel,’ or should we combine our dollars to buy a plow?”

Beyond the obvious fact that a plow can move more snow faster than a shovel, she said, in that scenario there’s no guarantee that everybody will buy a quality snow shovel. The legislation places few requirements on private schools that participate in the program, a reality that worries even Stanberry. 

“You do not have to be accredited to participate in the program, and that’s part of the concern,” he said. “I tend to be concerned myself.”

Participating private schools must either be registered with the State Board of Education, accredited by a national or regional accrediting agency, be an active member of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools or receive no public funds. 

Stanberry’s school went through a years-long process to become accredited by ACSI, the AdvancED-recognized Association of Christian Schools International, but private schools registered with the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education don’t have to meet curriculum-related requirements aside from giving a nationally-normed test to their third-, sixth- and ninth-grade students each year. The requirements mostly focus on criteria such as verifying immunization records, performing monthly fire drills and verifying that the school is continuously open for nine months of the year. 

But, some say, that’s no reason to say that private schools, as a rule, offer a poor education, or that parents who care about their child’s education enough to use the voucher system would opt to send them to an inadequate school. 

“I don’t know of a parent that would take their child to a school with an inferior education,” Evans said. “I just don’t think that happens.”

And often, supporters say, private schools offer benefits that public ones just can’t. 

“For one thing, you have a low student-teacher ratio,” said Al Alemany, principal of Grace Christian Academy in Bryson City, whose student-teacher ratio hovers around 7 or 8 to 1. “Depending on what [school] it is, most Christian schools have a traditional approach to education. It’s a spiritual ministry.”

Alemany added that of the school’s five teachers, all have college degrees and four of them have master’s degrees. The school uses A Beka, “a proven curriculum” that is widely used in private Christian schools, and that the school is committed to giving its students a quality education. 

And while the state’s rules for private school accreditation may be lax, Alemany and Stanberry said, the voucher legislation puts enough safeguards in place to ensure that schools accepting scholarship students are delivering a quality education. Among other requirements, schools accepting voucher students must report scores yearly to the State Education Assistance Authority from a nationally normed test given to students in third grade and up, provide the SEAA with scholarship student graduation rates and provide the SEAA with documentation of the tuition and fees charged to scholarship students which may not differ from those charged to other students. 

“Any private school that fails to comply with these requirements could lose eligibility to receive future scholarship grants,” Stanberry said. 

But Baldwin says those stipulations aren’t enough. 

“Our students take a myriad of assessments, but by attending a private school, there’s no accountability,” he said. 

As with any issue involving millions of both dollars and children’s futures, the waters of argument can cloud quickly. But in the end, both sides agree, there’s really only one question to answer: what is the best way to guarantee a quality education for every child?

Opponents of the voucher program decry it as an intentional handicap to the public schools and their students, but supporters welcome it as a much-needed tool for giving families the chance to choose educational options outside what they see as a one-size-fits-all public school system. 

“I just feel that we’re compelled to find some pathway for low-income students to make it,” Allison said. 

The Macon and Haywood county school board meetings were reported using videos from Macon Media and HCSNC Media, respectively. 

 

What’s in the lawsuit?

So far, 51 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts — including Jackson County and Macon County — have joined the North Carolina School Boards Association in a lawsuit against the State of North Carolina, the North Carolina Board of Education and the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, claiming that the Opportunity Scholarship Program violates the North Carolina Constitution. 

According to the lawsuit, the legislation illegally allows public funds to be used for a non-public purpose, interferes with citizens’ right to “the privilege of education” due to what it deems are inadequate educational standards for participating private schools and that it does not prevent participating private schools from discriminating among applicants based on factors such as race or religion. 

“We’ll just have to wait and see what the courts do, but we think the way we crafted that bill passes court muster,” said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. 

The law’s supporters point out that the state already allocates public money to private institutions in the form of college scholarships awarded to students, who can then decide to use them at a private school if they wish. Likewise, the voucher money goes to the parents, not to the schools directly, so this is not a “non-public” use of public funds. And if parents choose to take their children to a school that restricts its admissions to a certain demographic, they say, that is the parents’ choice. 

“The program’s not giving money to the private schools,” said Darrell Allison, president of Raleigh-based Parents for Educational Freedom. “The program is giving money to the parent, who chooses the private school.”

Pro-voucher advocates point out that schools only lose dollars if they lose students, so the program does not necessarily harm the education of public school students. But public school advocates say that school budgets are already tight and still shrinking, so any loss in funds will translate to a decline in the education of those who stay. 

“Even if only five students currently attending Macon County Schools attended private schools on vouchers this fall,” said Chris Baldwin, superintendent of Macon County Schools, “the district would lose the equivalent of a new teacher.”

Districts can still choose to jump in on the lawsuit, and no court date has yet been scheduled. 

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