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It’s time to admit it. North Carolina’s school voucher program is a failure

·3 min read
Ann Doss Helms/ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Republican state lawmakers can’t bring themselves to spend what they should on public schools and they can’t stop themselves from spending what they shouldn’t on private schools.

That’s obvious from a look at the new state budget. The spending plan is far short of what a judge has found to be necessary to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education. Republicans are challenging the legality of the judge’s order.

Meanwhile, deep in the two-year budget bill is a startling increase in what the Republican-led General Assembly wants to spend on the Opportunity Scholarship Program to help children meet the cost of attending a private school.

The per-student annual voucher is being increased from a flat $4,200 to 90 percent of the state’s per-pupil allotment for public school students, or $5,900. At the same time, the budget widens the door to the program by raising the family income limit. For a family of four, it’s now up to $85,000.

This sweetening isn’t because Republican lawmakers are feeling generous. It’s happening because they are trying to expand school choice and not enough parents want the choice they’re offering. The program, launched in 2014 and currently with 19,240 recipients, has been unable to spend its annual allocation.

Despite the lack of demand, Republicans keep feeding the program more money. Current funding is scheduled to double to $240 million by 2032. By then, the state will have spent more than $1 billion on vouchers.

Senate leader Phil Berger explained the program’s goal in an op-ed earlier this year. He wrote, “Republicans created the Opportunity Scholarship Program with grants to less fortunate children so they, too, can attend private schools previously reserved for the wealthy.”

But that’s not really the case. Even at $5,900, the voucher isn’t enough to pay for a first-rate private school where the annual tuition can be more than $20,000.

Instead, opportunity scholarships enable children to attend smaller, mostly religious schools, many of them offering a curriculum that does not meet the state’s public school standards. Indeed, the voucher program sends money to private schools without requiring that the schools even be accredited, have licensed teachers, offer clear measurement of students’ academic progress or, in most cases, submit an accounting of their finances.

When Bonnie Bechard, an education researcher with the League of Women Voters, reviewed the curriculum at about 100 schools receiving vouchers in 2018, she found that more than three-fourths used a Bible-based curriculum that lacks academic rigor and is not accepted by major universities. She found one school where 17 of the 19 students had Opportunity Scholarships and the faculty consisted of a minister and his wife.

“There is no requirement for these children to learn anything and that’s the bottom line,” Bechard told me last week.

A lack of oversight doesn’t worry state Rep. Dean Arp, (R-Union), who sponsored a bill this year to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program. He argued on the House floor that parents will ensure the quality of what’s being taught. “If they feel their child is not receiving a sound, basic education, they move and go to a different location,” he said.

That’s not enough for state Rep. Rachel Hunt (D-Mecklenburg), a member of the House Education Committee. “This is taxpayer money,” she said. “I’d like there to be accountability on what kids are learning and who is teaching them.”

State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake), a member of the Senate Education Committee, said boosting vouchers and reducing state revenue through tax cuts is part of a plan “clearly designed to gut public education.”

When it comes to expanding school choice in North Carolina, that’s what is really being chosen.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ news observer.com

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