By Lindsay Wagner

Relying on sound data when it comes to making decisions around spending North Carolina’s taxpayer dollars should be a no-brainer.

However, in spite of the fact that we don’t know if our publicly funded school voucher program produces positive academic outcomes for kids, Senate lawmakers passed legislation this week that would expand North Carolina’s voucher program anyway, now proposing to enable middle-income families to receive taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools, too.

To qualify for a school voucher today, families must earn a household income that is less than 133 percent of the amount required to qualify for the free-and-reduced price lunch program, which is roughly $63,000 for a family of four. Senate Bill 609 would lift that eligibility threshold to 150 percent, or a little over $70,000 annually for that four person family.

Advocates and lawmakers for vouchers have persistently beat the drum about how this program is intended to help children living in poverty access private schools that might help them excel in ways that their local public schools cannot. With SB 609, that argument begins to fade away, making it clear that the intention of the school voucher program is quite simple: divert public dollars into private educational settings. As more children leave the public schools for private options, public school budgets will continue to contract, making it difficult for them to stay viable.

It’s a risky move when you consider that oversight of private schools participating in the voucher program is extremely poor, enabling our state to funnel tens of millions of dollars each year to mostly religious schools that aren’t required to tell the public how or what they teach students, whether or not their students are performing well, or how they spend these hard earned tax dollars. It’s impossible to know whether or not the supposed intent of the voucher program — to provide families with a better alternative to public schools — is being achieved, because lawmakers have never required private schools to assess their students in ways that would allow the public to understand if the education they offer is high quality.

Private schools aren’t held to any reasonable standard of accountability, and students, families and taxpayers are left to wonder as more than $100 million in public dollars have already been siphoned away from state coffers during a time that lawmakers have directed insufficient resources to the state’s system of public schools. Meanwhile, the state’s largest recipient of vouchers, Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville, employed a basketball coach that was convicted of embezzling hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars — and he continues to coach and teach at the school. Trinity Christian still reins in more than $1 million annually in voucher funds, in spite of the embezzlement scandal. Where is the accountability?

With millions of unspent dollars left on the table each year, the voucher program has never had enough demand from low-income families, perhaps because a voucher of $4,200 per year isn’t enough to cover full tuition and transportation, uniforms and other fees at many private schools. Between expanding access to middle income families and lifting the cap on how many kindergarten and first grade children who weren’t previously attending public schools can qualify, Senate lawmakers propose a fix to this unmet demand problem by expanding access to public dollars to those who were always going to attend private schools without taxpayer support.

Senate lawmakers also moved legislation this week to expand access to virtual charter schools. In this case, we know a good bit more about how this educational model serves students when you compare it to what we know about voucher schools.

Senator Jerry Tillman told his colleagues on the Senate floor that if you look at recent data, virtual charter schools actually hold up to public schools very well. Some of his colleagues challenged his assertion, to which he challenged his fellow Senators to simply pick who they wanted to believe.

Instead, how about we look at the actual data?

Virtual charter schools, which are in their fourth year of a pilot program that was recently extended to eight years, are not, in fact, serving students well at all.

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In 2017-18, both of North Carolina’s virtual charter schools, which are operated by Pearson and K12, Inc., received Ds for the third year in a row. They also didn’t meet EVAAS growth expectations–again, for the third year in a row. Both schools are continually low performing, but Senate lawmakers still engaged in a vigorous debate around whether or not they have earned the right to lose their caps on enrollment growth.

Despite the fact virtual charters are performing poorly in North Carolina and beyond — a national study of online charter schools conducted by Stanford found that students enrolled in these platforms substantially underperformed their traditional public school counterparts — Senate Bill 522 passed along party lines, nearly—one Democrat voted for the virtual charters’ expansion.

The Senate’s proposals to further privatize education in North Carolina — which must be approved by the House and Governor to become law — come on the heels of House proposals that would further erode the very weak accountability measures that are in place for the state’s voucher program.

At a time when our public schools are subject to so much scrutiny and assessment via standardized testing and reporting — the degree to which educators say hampers their ability to do the actual work of educating our students — we must ask ourselves why our state leaders ask so very little of our publicly funded private school operators. Why is it acceptable to send millions of tax dollars to schools that are not accountable and transparent to the public? Why would we choose to fund schools that may do very little to prepare our next generation for college and careers? Why are we rewarding online charter schools for poor academic outcomes?

These questions must be asked of our state leaders who are deciding to divert public dollars to private school operators without mechanisms in place for oversight — and our state leaders must be held accountable, too.

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