Bad timing for bad idea

Bad timing for bad idea

- in Fitzsimon File

Talk about bad timing.

The folks pushing the latest version of a voucher scheme for private schools descended on the General Assembly Tuesday with a crowd of roughly a thousand, mostly students and officials at religious schools.

The schools stand to gain the most from the plan that would allow corporations to receive dollar for dollar tax credits for donations to nonprofits that provide scholarships to private schools.

But the well orchestrated event came the same day as a blistering front page story in the New York Times about the program that currently operates in eight states and as the Times story puts it is a scholarship program that has “been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.”

It is also a voucher plan, plain and simple, dressed up in a tax credit. House Majority Leader Paul Stam and the anti-public school forces pushing it claim it doesn’t use taxpayer money but it does, by redirecting money that would have gone to the state’s General Fund to private nonprofits that fund primarily religious schools.

Stam’s plan calls for as much as $40 million to be redirected initially. In other states, the amount is more than $200 million.

The Times report found that the redirected public money has expanded the staff of nonprofit groups, attracted star athletes, and spread fundamentalist religious theology like creationism—all with public money that could have gone to traditional public schools.

In some states, lobbyists and lawmakers play a role in who gets the scholarships from the nonprofits. In others, donors are allowed to recommend students to receive scholarships including students who are already enrolled in private or religious schools.

In short, it’s a bad idea, a backdoor voucher plan that robs money from traditional public schools with questionable results for students and little accountability from the groups that handle the money.

One opponent of the program wonders why corporations can’t get the same dollars for dollar tax credit for giving money to their local public school or school system. Good question, but the folks behind this program aren’t interested in helping public schools, they want to dismantle them.

Tuesday’s rally also came less than a week after Sarah Ovaska with NC Policy Watch reported the details of a trip to Florida in March by a group of legislators including House Speaker Thom Tillis that was paid for the principal lobbying group for the voucher scheme, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC).

The lawmakers and the PEFNC lobbyists on the trip met with proponents of the voucher/tax credit scholarship program in Florida and several lawmakers received campaign contributions from the PAC associated with PEFNC.

The trip appears to violate the state’s ban on gifts from lobbying interests to legislators, though PEFNC and Tillis’ staff claim the trip was allowed under the education exception in the lobbying law.

That’s a pretty loose interpretation of that exception. The facts are undeniable. A lobbying group took lawmakers to Florida with their lobbyists in attendance to sell them on legislation they want passed in the General Assembly.

Less than two months after the trip, after campaign contributions are made, comes the announcement that the legislation creating the voucher/scholarship program will be introduced in the House.

Probably all just a coincidence.

Diverting money from traditional public schools never makes sense, but it is an especially troubling suggestion this year after teachers were fired and classroom funding was slashed by the budget passed by Republicans last summer.

Questions about ethics, evidence of serious problems with the program, and already woefully underfunded public schools.

It adds up to a bad idea at a bad time, and no rally at the General Assembly can change that.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.