Education

School Vouchers Come to North Carolina

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Part 3 of an NC Policy Watch series

Beginning in 2014, some North Carolina families will be able to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools.

School vouchers, formally known as ‘Opportunity Scholarships,’ are offered up by school choice advocates as the cure-all for underserved minority children who are failing in the public school system. Qualifying families will be able to use the vouchers seek out better educational alternatives in private schools offering smaller class sizes and more specialized instruction.

Critics of the voucher system say the program will siphon desperately needed funds out of the public school system to offer what would effectively be a tax break to families who can already afford to send their children to private schools.

That’s because at $4,200 per year, a school voucher isn’t enough to cover the cost of attendance at most private schools in the state. Truly low-income families won’t be able to make up the difference between the voucher and the tuition, fees, and transportation costs.

Following part I and part II of our series on school vouchers, today we look closely at some private schools that stand to benefit from the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

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New City Christian School, a K-6 private school in Asheville, is one of nearly 700 private schools (70 percent of which are religious institutions) in North Carolina that are eligible to receive students who have Opportunity Scholarships come 2014.

According to New City’s website, the school was founded in 2006 in response to a persistent community problem in Asheville of an academic “achievement gap” between white and African-American students.

Minority kids are not doing well in Asheville’s public schools,” New City’s executive director, Coral Jeffries, told NC Policy Watch. “Less than 50 percent of [minority] students pass the End of Grade (EOG) tests in many schools, and North Carolina’s EOGs are very easy.”

To compare students’ academic performance at New City to that of students in Asheville City Schools is not easily done. Students at private schools in North Carolina are required by law to take a nationally-normed standardized in grades three, six and nine; students in public schools take End of Grade (EOG) tests, which are not nationally normed, in grades 3-8 and 10.

Students at New City take the Woodcock-Johnson III standardized test. According to the school’s website, 54 percent of African-American students who had attended at least one year at New City scored above the 75th percentile for Total Achievement, which tests students in reading and math.

That sounds better than the percentage of African-American students who pass End of Grade tests in Asheville’s public schools, which is as low as 32.8 percent at one elementary school – but how would a parent be able to truly compare? How rigorous is the Woodcock-Johnson III and how does its testing components compare to EOG testing? How would those private school students perform on public school EOGs after completing coursework at New City? It’s a guessing game.

New City also does not accept students with severe learning disabilities. “We get no government funding for extra resources for truly special needs,” said Jeffries. “We do take students who have IEPs (Individual Education Plans), but it would be morally wrong to take students we can’t help,” Jeffries explained, meaning students who have significant learning needs. “We have no one on staff with a degree in special education.”

While New City is able to provide smaller class sizes and “a spiritual focus to provide a hopeful framework for life’s challenges,” questions arise with regard to access and religion.

The vision of New City is to “provide an education that is Christ-centered and academically rigorous.” To that end, the school’s philosophy of education embodies the following: “Since God’s truth is revealed in the scriptures as well as in all creation, the Christian worldview approach integrates the truth of scripture with learning in all subject matter.”

Jeffries says none of that will change once 2014 comes and voucher-bearing students come to their doors.

We welcome anyone from any faith or no faith at all to our school,” said Jeffries. “But a parent has to understand that we will do certain things in certain ways. If they are not comfortable, they shouldn’t come to our school. No one is compelled to come to our school.”

We are not coercive,” Jeffries emphasized. “People who have been rescued by God understand that you don’t force it on someone.”

New City charges tuition and fees to families on a sliding scale, taking into account household income and ability to pay. Jeffries says it costs roughly $6,600 to educate a child at New City, but few families are in a position to pay that amount, so the school raises money elsewhere, from local individuals who care about social justice to church meetings where a hat gets passed around.

Jeffries has also been involved in lobbying efforts for the Opportunity Scholarship program, having donated $1,000 in 2012 to a political action committee called Partners for Educational Freedom.

That PAC is associated with Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina (PEFNC), an organization known for its involvement in school privatization and vouchers. In 2012, Partners for Educational Freedom PAC funneled more than $90,000 in campaign funds to lawmakers who would work to push school voucher legislation through the General Assembly.

Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford), a key champion of the school voucher legislation, received campaign contributions totaling more than $10,000 from school choice proponents – approximately 25% of all donations he received.

Jeffries said she made the $1,000 donation to support the passage of the school voucher legislation because she has firsthand experience with her private school.

To see the Opportunity Scholarship bill pass – that says no matter what your income is, you’re not stuck with what our government offers. It’s about justice,” said Jeffries.

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While not all leaders of other private religious institutions have embarked on lobbying campaigns to get school vouchers enacted into state law, it’s worth highlighting another one of those schools that stands to gain from the Opportunity Scholarship Program as an example of the lengths to which taxpayer funds will fund religious education.

Bethel Christian Academy in Kinston serves grades K-12 and also houses a daycare. Bethel bills itself as a fundamental Christian school whose purpose is to “provide its students with an educational program that in its entirety, exalts and glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ by making Him the center of all things.”

Admission is based on past report cards, performance on previous achievement tests and an entrance test, in addition to an interview.

According to its handbook, Bethel uses textbooks that are “God-centered, teaching spiritual truths, morality, and patriotism.”

The textbooks that Bethel uses include the A-Beka Book curriculum and books from Bob Jones University Press. These texts teach students Bible-based facts, including the following: dinosaurs and humans co-existed on Earth; slave-masters generally treated their slaves well; in some areas, the KKK fought the decline in morality by using the sign of the cross; and gay people have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.

Bethel’s Standards of Conduct are peppered with Christ-honoring language. Notably, Bethel requires the following of each student, whether they are at school, home or elsewhere [emphasis added by Bethel]:

to refrain from participating in worldly activities such as swearing, indecent language, vandalizing of any property, trashing of any public or private property (i.e. “papering” a house), smoking, possession or use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco, gambling, viewing pornography, premarital or extramarital sex, homosexuality or other sexual perversions, and involvement in secular, non-Christ honoring music.

If you are a gay student or interested in listening to or creating secular music, that’s grounds for expulsion.

School officials at Bethel Christian did not return calls for comment.

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Earlier this year, the Supreme Court in Louisiana ruled that state funding for vouchers was unconstitutional.

The 6-1 ruling did not specifically strike down the voucher program on the basis of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, prohibiting the use taxpayer funds to support religious education.

Instead the ruling more simply stated that public money then being used to pay private and religious school tuition should be going to public schools, as it was intended.

Contesting the constitutionality of a school voucher program on the grounds that it violates the separation of church and state is tricky territory, according to first amendment lawyer Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law at the University of California-Irvine.

In 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision that allowed for school vouchers to go to religious schools. But only if many other alternatives, including secular schools, existed as options as well,” Chemerinsky told NC Policy Watch.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris specified that the following conditions must be met in order for a voucher program to be constitutional:

  • the program must have a valid secular purpose,
  • aid must go to parents and not to the schools,
  • a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered,
  • the program must be neutral with respect to religion, and
  • there must be adequate nonreligious options.

So if there is a situation where in some rural areas only religious private educational options exist, that could be a scenario in which the constitutionality of the voucher program can be contested, said Chemerinsky.

North Carolina’s state constitution does not have a clause that specifically addresses the separation of church and state, making a legal case on those grounds challenging.

The state’s constitution does have a “uniformity clause,” however, requiring that the state provide a general and uniform system of free public schools. The school voucher program could be contested on those grounds, with the idea that spending taxpayer funds on private schooling inhibits the state’s ability to achieve those ends.

Just after the passage of the budget proposal containing the school voucher provisions, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) notified members of the General Assembly that they plan to challenge the constitutionality of using taxpayer dollars to fund private education in court.

If and when that does happen, stay tuned to NC Policy Watch for updates.

Questions, comments? Education Reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com

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