Report on private schools helps explain what controversial voucher program would really mean for North Carolina
Last week’s ruling by Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood that put at least a temporary halt to the implementation of North Carolina’s controversial public school voucher scheme has served to highlight a number of important problems with the new law – many of them already pretty widely publicized. The voucher program would, for instance, rob badly underfunded public schools of millions of public dollars. It would worsen racial segregation in education. It would further the pernicious process whereby more and more core functions of civil society are being transferred from public to private hands. It would also violate the state constitution’s “public purpose” requirement which mandates that funds for purposes of public education be used exclusively for free public schools.
Where the money would go
One enormous and less well-understood problem with the voucher plan on which the court ruling and its attendant proceedings have also helped shine a light (and that heretofore had received surprisingly relatively scant attention) is the nature of the private schools that would actually be eligible to receive the vouchers. As Professor Jane Wettach of Duke University Law School helped make clear this past weekend in an essay published in Raleigh’s News & Observer, that reality includes some pretty amazing facts.
Consider the following key findings from a new report generated by the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke that Wettach leads:
- A total of 696 private schools are registered with the State Division of Non-Public Education. Of those, 70 percent are religious and 30 percent are independent.
- Of the 696 schools, 38 are boarding schools and 35 are “special schools” such as treatment facilities, wilderness programs, and schools focused on students with particular special needs. The remainder are day schools. Some serve just a few grade levels and others serve up to 13 grade levels (kindergarten through grade 12).
- North Carolina’s private schools operate throughout the state, though there are 13 counties with no private schools and another 18 counties with just one private school. In those 18 counties, the single private school is religious. A large majority of the private schools, particularly independent schools, are concentrated in the urban areas of the state.
- Approximately half of the schools have enrollments of 50 or fewer students; a quarter of schools have enrollments of 20 or fewer students. Eighty nine schools – 13 percent of the total – enroll ten or fewer students.
- The average tuition of private schools in North Carolina, excluding boarding schools and special schools, is $6,690. Approximately 38 percent of schools charge tuition at some grade level that could be fully paid by a voucher (i.e., $4,200 per year or less). Of those schools whose tuition could be met with a voucher payment, 92 percent are religious schools. At the middle school and high school levels, nearly 95 percent are religious schools.
- About 70 percent of private schools indicated a willingness to accept voucher payments.
- About 30 percent of the private schools in North Carolina have some type of accreditation from an independent agency. Of the schools with tuition at or below the $4,200 voucher level, less than five percent of high schools have any type of accreditation and less than 10 percent of grade schools and middle schools have accreditation.
- About 30 percent of the private schools in North Carolina employ only certified teachers. Twenty percent of schools have no certified teachers; another 25 percent have fewer than half certified teachers.
- About 25 percent of the private schools follow the North Carolina curriculum standards.
- More than 30 percent of the private schools reported that more than 90 percent of the students are of one race. Twenty-nine percent reported that more than 90 percent of the students are white, and 4 percent reported that more than 90 percent of the students are black.
- About 40 percent of private schools have academic criteria for admission; about 20 percent have religious criteria for admission.
In other words…
Think about that. The schools to which millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars would flow can only be described as overwhelmingly sectarian, exclusive, of widely varying size and quality and mostly unaccountable to any kind of accreditation authority. As Wettach says in her essay:
“Voucher supporters say the program provides a choice for families to escape low-performing public schools and find the ‘best school’ for their children. As can be seen from the findings about private schools in North Carolina, the voucher recipients – who need not show that the public schools they are leaving are low-performing or that their children are poorly served there – will nearly all be choosing very small, unaccredited religious schools with uncertified teachers and a nonstandard curriculum. These ‘choice’ schools will remain, as they are now, unaccountable to the public.”
It’s enough to leave an observer dumbfounded.
How can it possibly be the policy of the state of North Carolina to send public tax dollars to a school that will only admit students who profess a belief that “Jesus Christ is their lord and savior” or to one that requires all students to pray to Allah multiple times per day? How can it be the policy of the state to send public money to a school that does not serve people with disabilities or to one that does not admit the children of gay parents? How can it possibly be the policy of North Carolina to send public money to schools that are reserved only for the children of millionaires or that teach students that slavery was okay and that humans and dinosaurs once shared the earth? How can it possibly be the policy of the state of North Carolina to establish a school “choice” program that has no real effect in dozens of counties?
Perhaps, more to the point: how can any true American – whatever their politics or devotion to their own religious beliefs – seriously endorse such an idea? Have we gone so far down the road of what’s-in-it-for-me market fundamentalism that we’ve lost all connection to the common good and the notion that all citizens are equal before the law?
It’s important to note that none of these concerns are merely the extravagant concoctions of zealous lawyers. As Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer reported last week, most of the parents to sign up thus far for vouchers plan to send their children to explicitly sectarian schools. In Greensboro, the largest is an Islamic school. Here in Raleigh, one of the big favorites is a Christian school that rejects Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Unification Church members, Zen Buddhists, Unitarians and United Pentecostals as members of “cults.”
The “choice” society
The implications of such a new law are especially dark given that many of its proponents see it as just another step in toward the establishment of a kind of increasingly sectarian society that would warm the hearts of Iranian mullahs and Vladimir Putin. Even as you read this, lawmakers in other states are considering (and passing) legislation drafted by allies of the folks behind North Carolina’s voucher law that would make it lawful for private businesses to refuse service to (or hire) people in the name of “religious freedom” and “choice.”
Don’t feel like serving gays and lesbians (or, for that matter Jews or Muslims) in your business because it offends your “religious” sensibilities? Well then, have the Arizona and Kansas legislatures got bills for you!
Let’s hope it doesn’t get that far in North Carolina. Rather, let’s hope that the court challenge to the voucher law succeeds and that the law’s demise helps awaken the people of this state to the threat posed to freedom and pluralism by some troubled and confused groups and individuals on the far right.
Stay tuned and engaged, though. Your voice will likely be needed.