As the North Carolina General Assembly considers enacting landmark legislation that would put publicly-funded vouchers for private schools in the hands of parents at a cost to public education of at least $50 million over the next two years, lawmakers and citizens are asking a simple question.
Who will hold these publicly-funded private schools accountable for providing our children a high-quality education?
Legislators, including Reps. Skip Stam, and Marcus Brandon, and Speaker Thom Tillis have offered a simple response: the parents.
The rhetoric suggests that if given a choice, parents will certainly send their students to the highest quality institutions of education that have set up shop in North Carolina. Parents are the ones who are best positioned to assess a school’s ability to provide high-quality educational services, and a school will not survive if a parent finds it to be lacking in fiscal resources, adequately supported and well-trained teachers and staff and an excellent curriculum.
Yet, it’s difficult to imagine that all parents possess perfect knowledge of the educational marketplace. If that were the case, would Florida be home to 25 schools that were found to have defrauded a taxpayer-funded voucher program, which resulted in cases where large numbers of students were crammed into rotating classrooms locations in dingy strip malls, church foyers and public parks?
Instead of relying on their own assessments of schools, many parents look for a seal of approval that indicates a school has been put to the test. That rigorous accountability system is typically known as accreditation. In the United States, regional accrediting organizations are considered the gold standard, having developed robust standards for what schools, colleges and universities should adhere to in areas ranging from student learning outcomes, teacher credentials and fiscal resources.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools/AdvanceED (SACS) is the regional accrediting body that accredits more than 1,000 public and private schools in North Carolina. SACS’ five standards for accreditation include having a robust curriculum, high quality teaching staff and sufficient fiscal resources for operation, in addition to other benchmarks.
In a survey of seven Raleigh-based private schools, five had regional accreditation granted by SACS/AdvanceED. The other two schools, Raleigh Christian Academy and Wake Christian Academy, obtained accreditation through a religious-based national accreditation agency, the American Association of Christian Schools (AACS).
When a school is “nationally accredited,” it may sound good to a prospective student or parent, but sometimes national accreditation agencies are not as reputable as their regional counterparts, or national agencies may promote standards that align with a religious perspective.
AACS’ first standard for accreditation is “the school has clearly written and actively implemented a statement of faith and a philosophy of Christian education.”
While the North Carolina state constitution does not strictly prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for religious educational institutions, some parents may find the idea of public dollars going toward religious education to be concerning. For example, some schools’ faith-based ideologies directly conflict with scientifically-grounded knowledge: Florida’s voucher program finances schools teaching a fundamentalist dogma that holds that the world was created in six days. Some of those schools use textbooks produced by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book, a Christian publisher in Pensacola, Florida.
Raleigh Christian Academy and Wake Christian Academy would be able to receive publicly-funded school vouchers later this year if the North Carolina General Assembly passes either a stand-alone bill or the House version of the budget, which includes school vouchers, by the end of this legislative session.
National and religious accrediting bodies are also not required to talk to parents or students about the accreditation status of a particular school. Those interested in verifying a school’s educational outcomes or fiscal resources with a national accrediting body are sometimes directed to inquire with the school’s administrators, who may be selective in the kind of information they offer parents in terms of accreditation status, fiscal resources, teacher credentials and student graduation rates.
And there is an unknown number of schools in North Carolina that have no accreditation at all. Public schools in North Carolina are technically not required to seek accreditation.
In a call to Children’s Village Academy, a public charter school in Kinston, a staff person who answered the phone seemed unfamiliar with the accreditation process, explaining that they were accredited by the NC Department of Public Instruction. After learning that accreditation would not be awarded by DPI but by a separate national or regional accreditation body, that staff person, who did not give her name, said that they had no accreditation.
Children’s Village Academy is at risk of losing their charter from the state after the Department of Public Instruction became concerned with their financial stability. An audit from the last fiscal year showed that the school had a $229,000 deficit. Only half of their teachers are licensed to teach in North Carolina—although public charter schools are not required to hire licensed teachers.
The question remains whether or not had Children’s Village Academy been required to go through the accreditation process, would some of these issues have been addressed and resolved earlier, prior to risking the loss of their charter and jeopardizing the education of their currently enrolled students.
Next week, the House Education Committee will debate Senate Bill 337, which would create an independent charter school advisory board that would move oversight of public charter schools away from the State Board of Education and weaken standards for public charter schools. Charters would not have to hire licensed teachers, nor would they be required to conduct criminal background checks.
Members from the House and Senate are working together in a conference committee to finalize the details of the state’s final budget for 2013-15. If school vouchers are included, and SB 337 becomes law, North Carolina will be in a situation where there is little accountability when it comes to the education of our children.