Secret deal threatens public education

Secret deal threatens public education

- in Fitzsimon File

House and Senate leaders are reportedly close to an agreement on a budget deal that includes a devastating blow to public education—a voucher scheme to divert public money to private and religious schools, a proposal that has never been debated in any legislative committee.

If the reports are true and the controversial voucher plan is snuck into the final budget, it will represent one of the worst abuses of the legislative process in modern times in North Carolina.

House Majority Paul Stam introduced the voucher scheme this session after a group of legislators were flown to Florida in March by a pro-voucher lobbying group, Parents for Educational Freedom, to meet with proponents of a similar program there.

The budget the House passed recently included funding to start the program, despite no public discussion of the proposal at all.

Stam’s plan would give corporations a dollar for dollar tax credit for contributions to nonprofits that give scholarships of up to $4,000 to students to attend private or religious schools.

Similar backdoor voucher programs in other states have drawn widespread criticism for diverting money from already underfunded public schools to largely unaccountable private and religious schools, many with a far-right fundamentalist curriculum.

One religious school in Louisiana that benefits from the vouchers doesn’t talk about evolution at all because, a school official said, they don’t want to confuse the children.

The private schools receiving the diverted public money would not be accountable to the taxpayers who would be funding them.

Investigations in other states have also revealed wide disparities in the quality of education provided at the private schools and studies show that the students do not perform better than their public school counterparts.

The scheme would also allow the nonprofits who provide the scholarships to keep nine percent of the money they receive from the diverted tax revenue. That would amount to almost four million dollars in the second year of Stam’s program.

Senate leaders reportedly have agreed to include the voucher scheme in the final budget in exchange for the House agreeing to include pieces of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s education reform proposal.

Berger’s plan in effect turns teachers into temporary employees by removing basic job protections and threatens to hold back thousands of third grade students.

It’s also based on reforms enacted in Florida under former Governor Jeb Bush, though Berger never seems to mention that North Carolina students are actually performing better on national tests than students there.

Berger’s education reform package is the wrong direction for education and grows out of his apparent misunderstanding about how public schools are doing.

But he is determined that most of it will pass this year and that seems to have led him to agree to include Stam’s controversial voucher scheme in the final budget agreement, which is more than just the wrong direction for public schools. It’s a radical dismantling of their foundation.

The only thing close to as objectionable would be to enact the destructive voucher plan with no public debate, no testimony from educators or parents or scholars, and no opportunity for rank and file lawmakers to offer any amendments.

Yet that appears to be the plan. It’s simply outrageous and beneath the dignity of the democracy in which lawmakers serve.

Let’s hope Senate leaders come to their senses soon and call off this offensive backroom deal.

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.