Education

School voucher program intended for low-income families marketed to all

LW-130-2

Peggy Weil doesn’t usually answer dinnertime phone calls. But one evening last month, she glanced at the caller ID and noticed a call was coming in from a 919 area code instead of the usual 800 number she associates with telemarketers. Figuring it could be a friend or colleague calling from Raleigh, she picked up.

“I was surprised to hear a sales person on the other line. She said North Carolina was offering financial help for students who wanted to attend private schools, and she wanted to know if she could have a few minutes of my time to see if my child was eligible,” said Weil, who lives in Asheville and has one child already in private school.

The caller, who said she was with a non-profit called School Choice North Carolina, wanted to help Weil figure out if her family could qualify for the state’s new Opportunity Scholarships program, which will provide students with $4,200 annual taxpayer-funded vouchers to use at private schools beginning in the fall of 2014. Applications will be accepted beginning this Saturday, February 1.

Weil said the caller also revealed that she was located in Kansas–even though her phone number had a 919 area code. In addition to the call, Weil has received a glossy postcard in the mail advertising the private school voucher program, which provides a personalized website and telephone number recipients can log onto or call to determine eligibility status.

“I’m not sure how I got on their list,” said Weil, who received the call and mailer in December. “I do have a daughter in a private middle school, but we pay for that with our own money.”

Weil’s family would not qualify for the voucher program, which is advertised as a way for students from low-income families to get into schools that may be a better fit for them than what the public school system offers. And she knows other families in a similar household income bracket to hers who have also received mailers and calls.

So who’s behind the promotional pitch for school vouchers—and why are they targeting families that wouldn’t be eligible for Opportunity Scholarships?

The school choice agenda

A closer inspection of the website that is listed on the mailer – www.schoolchoicenc.org — reveals that Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) is sponsoring the marketing campaign.

PEFNC is an advocacy group that formed in 2005 to push a school choice agenda in the state.

According to their own 2011 tax documents, PEFNC’s actions directly contributed to the elimination of the cap on the number of charter schools in the state as well as the passage of 2011 legislation that created a $6,000 tax credit for families who sent their children to private schools.

In their tax documents, the group also made clear its intention to lobby for legislation that would enact a quasi-school voucher program for low-income families in North Carolina.

PEFNC outlined here that upon passage of a 2012 bill that would grant state tax credits for donations to tax-exempt scholarship-granting organizations that would fund scholarships for low-income students to use at private schools, PEFNC would administer that scholarship program, which was modeled after a program in Florida called Step Up For Students. The advocacy group would also take a cut of the taxpayer funds for themselves as administrators.

Ultimately, that version of a school voucher program never passed the General Assembly—even though PEFNC footed the bill for 11 lawmakers to travel to Florida to get an up-close look at how their state tax credit program worked. Lawmakers did pass a tuition tax credit program for students with disabilities, which transitioned last summer into a direct voucher program that provides reimbursement for expenses related to disability education beginning in spring 2014.

Also passed last summer? The Opportunity Scholarships program, an even larger voucher program that will enable taxpayer dollars to be funneled directly to private schools–$10 million in 2014-15 and $40 million in 2015-16, with the hope of expanding the program even further in the future. The law, passed as a part of the budget bill last summer, provides little in the way of accountability for private schools while reducing funds for public education at a time when schools are seeing sharp reductions in funding over a years-long period.

So who funds Parents for Educational Freedom NC?

The school choice advocacy group receives the bulk of its funding from the Walton Family Foundation, established by the founders of the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart.

In 2011, PEFNC received $625,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, which accounts for about two-thirds of its total revenue for the year. The Walton family also gave PEFNC  $275,000 in 2009, $525,000 in 2010 and $600,000 in 2012, according to their website.

The Walton Family Foundation is known for funding school choice initiatives around the country. It funnels millions of dollars to Teach for America, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (which pushed for the Florida tax credit program that NC lawmakers studied), and numerous organizations around the country that lobby for charter school expansion. (See a full list of grantees here.)

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom NC, has seen his own compensation increase considerably as the influx of Walton money has ramped up. In 2010, Allison received $107,889 for his work running the non-profit; in 2012, Allison reported an income of $156,582—a 45 percent pay increase in just two years. (Allison did not return a request for comment for this story.)

The Walton Family recently announced plans to double the number of students enrolled in private schools with the support of publicly funded school vouchers. Naming North Carolina as one state of several where new “parent choice” laws have been passed, the Waltons are putting even more money into the Alliance for School Choice, on organization that provides model legislation for state lawmakers to use as they introduce bills that would create alternatives to public education.

Who will benefit?

When fighting for the passage of the tax credit bill back in 2012, Allison said that school vouchers are not for the rich.

“This program is not for the middle-class or the rich. It’s for low-income children. We’re talking about children in the system where the system isn’t working for them. It’s a win-win. It’s a win for the child, and their families, because they can be productive citizens. It’s a win for the state because of the savings,” said Allison.

If that’s the case, why spend money to advertise the Opportunity Scholarship program to families who already have the means to send their children to private schools?

A call to the number on the voucher postcard sends you to a messaging company based in Maryland, which was hired by PEFNC to walk those interested in applying for the Opportunity Scholarships through the eligibility guidelines.

When asked how families were identified for sending out advertisements, the employee on the other end of the line said the non-profit company is reaching out to all families in North Carolina. Their phone numbers were identified using publicly available lists that include telephone directory information and “other sources.” (As stated above, president of PEFNC Darrell Allison did not respond to a request for comment.)

When lawmakers first introduced the Opportunity Scholarship legislation back in April 2013, the intent was to provide $90 million over two years to students who reside in households with incomes of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level – that’s $70,650 for a family of four.

Today’s law caps the income eligibility limit for school vouchers at $43,568 for a family of four—a move made perhaps in response to a public outcry over extending the proposed program beyond truly low-income families. But income eligibility limits will rise in year two to 57,945 for a family of four. And they could rise even further, if actions in other states are telling of what is to come in North Carolina.

In Wisconsin, the governor raised the income eligibility limit on school vouchers in 2012 to 300 percent of the federal poverty level (again, that’s $70,650 for a family of four), and families were no longer held to any income limits after the first year of receiving vouchers. Even if their income levels increased in year two or beyond, families could still receive the taxpayer-funded vouchers for use at private schools.

In Ohio, Governor Kasich expanded their school voucher program from 14,000 recipients to 60,000 in 2011. But demand for the vouchers has been low, especially in rural parts of Appalachian Ohio, where choice of private schools is limited. Voucher advocates say not enough people know about the program; opponents say Ohioans are happy with the options provided by the public school system.

If the intent of North Carolina lawmakers is to expand the Opportunity Scholarship program beyond low-income families, it appears the push to market school vouchers to a much wider audience has already begun.

Questions? Comments? Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or at lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com. Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC