Education

Where’s the accountability?

LW-1009

A brief history of the Division of Non-Public Education, the Pearsall Plan, and the deregulation of North Carolina’s private schools

Most are familiar with the famous 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws creating separate public schools for white and black children were unconstitutional.

Soon after Brown’s federal desegregation orders, North Carolina’s lawmakers developed the Pearsall Plan, which, according to the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education’s website, “was essentially a voucher program to provide funding for student attendance at non-public schools in order to avoid anticipated racial strife envisioned as a result of the public school integration mandate.”

Vouchers were on the table in the 1950s – and they were envisioned as a means to avoid integration. While the voucher portion of the Pearsall Plan was never implemented, that proposed policy set the stage for substantial regulation of private schools during the 1960s and 70s.

But by 1979, a private school-led uprising took place that ultimately resulted in state law that mandates very little oversight for private schools.

As North Carolina looks ahead to school vouchers being implemented next year, read on to understand why residents can anticipate very little accountability for private schools receiving taxpayer funds.

The Pearsall Plan and the creation of the Division of Non-Public Education

The Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) was formed in 1961 to oversee private schools as they accommodated the flight of white students from public schools to private ones in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Just after the Brown decision, Governor William B. Umstead created a Special Advisory Committee on Education, chaired by prominent Rocky Mount businessman and former Speaker of the House Thomas Pearsall.

That group that included 12 whites and three African Americans decided that school integration would be inadvisable and should not be attempted. The committee stalled desegregation efforts by giving local school districts control over student assignments at particular schools, blocking African-Americans from attending all-white public schools.

After Umstead’s death, Gov. Luther Hodges formed another advisory group, naming it the Pearsall Committee. Also chaired by Pearsall but comprising no African-Americans this time, that group came up with legislation that the General Assembly could adopt to block integration. Known as the Pearsall Plan, the legislation paved the way for the state to pay private school tuition grants to parents of students who were then assigned to “integration schools.”

The General Assembly enacted Pearsall, but needed public support for the legislation to be upheld. Ultimately North Carolinians voted to uphold racial desegregation.

Even though school vouchers that were intended to derail integration efforts never came to fruition, the Pearsall Plan still had a lasting effect on private school oversight.

Because private schools were considered to be a sanctuary for white students fleeing integrated schools, policymakers decided to impose regulatory requirements on them that mirrored those in place for the public school system.

The requirements dealt with teacher preparation, curriculum offerings, size of classes, safety and health requirements, and the length of the school day and year. The Division of Non-Public Education, housed under the Department of Public Instruction, was tasked with enforcing those requirements.

Governor Jim Hunt commented to the News & Observer in 1979, “At the time that the Pearsall Plan was adopted in this state, what we did, in effect, was we put all the regulations that we had for our public schools on the private schools. My understanding is that we have the most highly regulated private schools of any state in the country.”

Private schools fight back and home schools become legal

More than 70 percent of North Carolina’s private schools identify as religious today, and as those numbers grew in the 1970s, Christian school leaders became frustrated with state mandates that conflicted with their religious beliefs and instructional methodologies.

Lobbying efforts and peaceful demonstrations on the part of Christian school leaders that took place during the late 1970s to reduce private school regulation culminated in the passage of two bills in 1979.

Before that happened, the State Board of Education filed a declaratory judgment action in Wake County Superior Court against private schools, saying that religious schools didn’t have a first amendment issue.

The Superior Court ruled in favor of the State Board of Education, and the private schools appealed to the state Supreme Court. Days before that case was to be argued, however, the General Assembly acted in the private schools’ favor, amending the law to what it is known today as Parts 1 and 2 of Article 39, which now provide very minimal regulations for private schools.

No longer are private schools held to any requirements with regard to curricula, teacher preparation, or class size. Private schools do have to provide sanitation and fire inspection records, immunization records, and attendance records. They must also administer nationally normed standardized tests in certain grades.

With minimal regulations, private Christian schools are able to inject fundamentalist ideology into their instructional practices. Some schools, like Bethel Christian Academy in Kinston, use 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.

In 1985, home schools became legalized in North Carolina when the State Supreme Court ruled in the Delconte case, saying that home instruction did not violate the state’s compulsory attendance laws.

DNPE was tasked with providing oversight of home schools as well. They are held to the same standards as traditional private schools. Since their legalization in 1985, their numbers have exploded from in the hundreds to now more than 57,000 across the state.

Today’s Division of Non-Public Education

At the time of private schools’ deregulation in 1979, the Division of Non-Public Education moved from the Department of Public Instruction to the Office of the Governor.

David Mills, the recently promoted Director of Non-Public Education, said that the move was “to keep it politically free from anything that would come up.”

Mills explained that when the division was under DPI, telling “private schools to parrot public schools didn’t work out too well.”

Mills has worked for the DNPE for more than 25 years, spending his time reviewing the compliance records of both private and home schools and conducting site visits.

Prior to his tenure with DNPE, Mills worked in private business and then as a guidance counselor in Apex, working with children with learning disabilities and developing individual education plans (IEPs) for them.

Mills is also the brother-in-law of Rep. Skip Stam, a champion of school voucher legislation. Asked to confirm whether or not Stam is his brother-in-law, Mills replied “it depends on the day.”

“We have never, ever discussed vouchers,” Mills said.

The DNPE is still the same size as it was in 1979, alternating between four or five staff.

During that time period, the number of home schools has exploded from just 500 to start to around 57,000 today. Private schools have also grown in number from 250 to approximately 700.

Prior to his promotion, Mills was the only staff member responsible for conducting site visits for the 700 private schools on DNPE’s list of compliant nonpublic schools.

“I try to get out to all of them once every three years,” said Mills. That would mean Mills would have needed to visit around 230 schools each year that are spread out all over the state.

When asked if he believes his office has the capacity to provide the necessary oversight for private and home schools, especially in light of the fact that private schools will now be eligible to receive taxpayer funds, Mills replied “[DNPE] has had to be creative and technology improvements have helped us do that. That’s how we’ve kept up.”

“We can’t go out and see 700 private schools and 57,000 home schools each year. But schools can email or fax us these records and instantly we can see them.”

Mills told NC Policy Watch that for the first time in 22 years, he will randomly select five home schools to visit and inspect for compliance this month. He hasn’t been able to visit them at all thanks to the explosion in numbers, he said, during the past two decades. During that time Mills conducted record reviews in church basements.

The home schools will have advanced notice of Mills’ visits.

Minimal oversight over home schools has caused concern among those who see a ripe opportunity for abuse and neglect. This summer, Erica Parsons was reported missing by her stepbrother. Parsons was supposedly being homeschooled by her adoptive parents, but an investigation led to the revelation that she hasn’t been seen since 2011.

Parson’s birth mother is now calling for an “Erica’s law” that would require greater oversight for home schools.

The case for increased oversight

The Division of Non-Public Education didn’t seem to think today’s school voucher program would really come to fruition.

DNPE’s former director, Ron Helder, who led the division for 25 years until 2010 authored the History of the Division of Non-Public Education, a document that one can find on their website.

At the end of the document, written sometime after 2000, Helder wrote,

While vouchers for non-public school attendance have been discussed in recent sessions of the General Assembly, no such legislative action is expected at this time. Many educators and policy makers are concerned about the potential bureaucracy needed to administer such a program and a possible loss of public school funding.

Non-public school leaders are concerned that government funding usually brings with it more governmental control which in turn stifles independence, educational diversity, creativity and innovation. For that reason, tax credits – rather than a voucher program – would be a more practical way to provide help to non-public school patrons. State tax credits to parents for non-public school tuition may ultimately be considered in future legislative sessions.

The DNPE’s own director figured that with private schools taking in taxpayer funds, there would be some sort of demand for increased oversight and accountability.

So far, that hasn’t happened. The accountability provisions for private schools receiving school vouchers beginning in 2014, as laid out in the 2013 budget, are widely panned as weak. Financial oversight is very minimal and private schools receiving voucher funds are not held to any standards with regard to curricula, teacher certification, or accommodating students with special needs, among other areas.

In other states with school vouchers, minimal financial and academic oversight has resulted in fraud and abuse.

At Milwaukee’s Mandella School of Science and Math, Principal David Seppah—who also founded the school—used proceeds from state voucher payments to buy two Mercedes-Benz automobiles at a cost of $65,000. Seppah also owed the state almost $330,000 for more than 200 checks officials acknowledged they “inappropriately” cashed. Many of those checks, worth about $1,500 a piece, were made out to families whose children never attended Mandella.

North Carolina’s lawmakers have countered that the ultimate accountability litmus test for private schools is the parents.

Rep. Marcus Brandon, a proponent of vouchers, told NC Policy Watch, “parents know what’s best for their children,” he said. “If it’s a good school, parents will go there. And if it’s bad, parents won’t. They won’t pay the extra tuition and get out of bed early to go send their kids to a bad school. Common sense prevails here.”

When asked if he believes private schools now deserve more accountability and oversight because they will be eligible to receive taxpayer funds, David Mills emphatically said no.

“The schools already have the accountability you could demand of a school because they work in the free enterprise system. If they don’t pride the product that meets the needs of the parents, those parents will vote with their feet,” said Mills.

“I had 38 schools close this year because they didn’t have the financial adequance to continue,” he added.

Where did the students go? “They dispersed and went to other schools. We don’t keep those records,” said Mills.

A number of private schools on DNPE’s list of those that are in compliance with the law indicate that they have just one teacher on staff and a handful of students, ranging from five to ten. Paramount Christian Academy in Thomasville is one of those schools, with one teacher and seven students.

“They’re just starting out,” replied Mills when asked how those schools differentiate themselves from home schools. “They’re not home schools. They’re probably catering to kids with learning disabilities or accelerated learners.”

Calls to Paramount Christian were never returned. Of the three telephone numbers located for the school, two were not working.

The State Board of Education developed a vision statement in 2012 that emphasized the need for increased accountability for private schools, should they end up receiving taxpayer funds.

Because many students move between the private and public sectors, some form of coordination between these sectors is appropriate. If public funds were to be made available – whether in the form of school vouchers for parents or state revenue foregone in the form of tax credits for scholarships – the private and religious schools benefitting from such funds would need to be incorporated far more explicitly into the public school system. That would be necessary because state policymakers have a responsibility to the state’s taxpayers to assure that the funds are being used to promote the public interest and not just the interests of the direct beneficiaries.

Bill Harrison, who was chair of the State Board at the time the vision statement was published, told NC Policy Watch he’s concerned about where North Carolina is headed.

“We [the State Board of Ed] recognized there are options and parents should have choice,” Harrison said, referring to the 2012 vision statement.

“But what’s been lost in the conversation is the common good, and who will look out for youngsters who don’t come from supportive homes. They already face a lot of obstacles, and now we are going to disregard them and take dollars away that were intended to support them in the public system and try to send them to private schools that may exclude them.”

“It’s about transparency, accountability and accessibility. I don’t think we should invest public dollars in any entity that practices discrimination,” said Harrison.

Questions or comments? Contact education reporter Lindsay Wagner at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com