Education

Discriminatory practices in North Carolina’s prospective voucher schools

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At a hearing last week that put a temporary halt to the new Opportunity Scholarships program, Judge Robert Hobgood learned some new facts about the most popular private schools that school voucher applicants were hoping to use taxpayer funds to attend.

Two of the top three private schools identified by voucher applicants as their preferred choice are Islamic schools, according to an affidavit submitted by the state from an employee of the school voucher administrating agency.

Both of those Islamic schools exclude students with disabilities and English language learners from attending their schools.

And Raleigh Christian Academy, another popular school that 55 voucher applicants identified as their top choice, explains in its application for admission that those who participate in cults – Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Buddhists, Unitarians, Unificationists and United Pentecostals – are barred from enrolling in their church school.

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The Opportunity Scholarships program, commonly referred to as the “school voucher program,” was enacted by the state last year when lawmakers inserted the language of the program’s bill, which never made it out of committee, into the state budget bill.

The voucher program, which effectively reduces the public education budget by roughly $11 million, would offer low-income families $4,200 vouchers annually to use at state-recognized private schools as an alternative to the public school system. Vouchers were expected to be offered to around 2,400 applicants, which amounts to the $10 million set aside in the UNC system budget for the program.

Parents for Educational Freedom NC’s president, Darryl Allison, said in a statement following Judge Hobgood’s decision to halt the program while the merits of the case are decided, “while we respect the court’s decision, we are deeply disappointed on behalf of the thousands of working-class families who desired this educational option,” he said. “These low-income families qualified for this program; these low-income families applied for this program; but these low-income families were wrongfully denied this program.”

Allison, whose organization has received millions from large corporate donors to push the implementation of school vouchers in North Carolina, sees the Opportunity Scholarships program as a salvation for students who are not doing well in the traditional public school system.

The affidavit submitted by the voucher challengers’ attorneys, which outlines the characteristics of the most popular private schools as identified by voucher applicants, raises the question of who will actually be able to access these alternative schools.

Fayetteville Christian Academy, which 66 voucher applicants identified as their top choice, requires for admission that each student and at least one parent receive Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Additionally, Fayevetteville Christian will not admit students from what they characterize as non-Christian religions. Those religions include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and “etc.”

And if you are gay or your parent is? You’re barred from attending too.

“Fayetteville Christian School will not admit families that engage in illicit drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality (LGBT) or other behaviors that Scripture defines as deviant [sic] [LW1] and perverted.”

Freedom Christian Academy in Fayetteville has been identified by 61 voucher applicants as their preferred school.

Freedom Christian, like Fayetteville Christian, requires the student and at least one parent accept Jesus Christ as Lord.

But beyond that, Freedom Christian also requires both the parent and student be active in a local church and get a Pastor’s recommendation for acceptance to their school.

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There are a handful of requirements to satisfy in order to be recognized by the state as a private school that is in compliance with North Carolina law, most of which relate health and safety standards as well as minimal testing standards.

There are no requirements to accept all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religious background.

Public schools, on the other hand, must accept any and all students. That includes students with disabilities and students from any religious, ethnic and socioeconomic background. English language learners must be accommodated too.

Greensboro Islamic Academy, like many private schools in the state, includes a non-discrimination policy on its website.

“With respect to students admission, Greensboro Islamic Academy does not discriminate on the basis of sex, age, race, color, national or ethnic origin, or disability…”

Upon digging deeper into its admissions policies, however, it’s clear that the opposite is the case.

“Students with any other special needs may not be admitted on the basis that GIA does not provide the programs required to adequately meet such needs,” according to GIA’s requirements for registration.

Further, GIA’s list of restrictions clearly excludes English language learners and children with emotional and severe learning disabilities.

The fact that private schools, which stand to receive taxpayer funds, discriminate against certain individuals is a key part of the complaint filed by those challenging the school voucher law.

Article I, Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution provides that no person shall be “subjected to discrimination by the state because of race, color, religion or national origin.”

Further, Article V, Section 2(1) of the Constitution states that “the power of taxation shall be exercised in a just and equitable manner, for public purposes only.”

Attorneys representing the voucher challengers assert that under these provisions, the State of North Carolina is not permitted to circumvent the constitutional prohibition on discrimination by outsourcing the functions of public schools to state-funded private schools that are allowed to discriminate.

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Judge Hobgood granted his injunction to temporarily halt the school voucher program on the basis of voucher challengers’ first claim for relief: that the state constitution requires that state funds be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools. (Article IX, Section 6)

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam (R-Wake), a key proponent of the Opportunity Scholarships program who has championed vouchers for years, believes he can get the program reinstated for the 2014-15 school year by making sure the public school budget doesn’t get cut thanks to vouchers.

Stam told the Carolina Journal, “the only constitutional violation he [Hobgood] found can be easily remedied in the short session just by appropriating more than $11 million to the public school fund,” Stam said after Hobgood’s ruling. “We’ll be appropriating probably hundreds of millions of dollars more to the public school system.”

Ann McColl, general counsel for the North Carolina Association of Educators, one of three groups representing plaintiffs in this case, said it won’t be that simple.

“I don’t think that solves the problem because you’re still using taxpayer dollars for private education and I don’t think there’s a way to get around that,” said McColl.

“The public purpose doctrine is still an issue–sending taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools doesn’t serve the public purpose. [Stam’s solution] doesn’t address the discrimination issue as well,” added McColl.

Will lawmakers address those issues in the short session, when they have the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and clean up the program so that it requires private schools that receive taxpayer dollars to adhere to nondiscrimination policies?

Sen. Malcolm Graham (D-Mecklenberg), formerly a proponent of school vouchers, recently said he’s no longer a supporter. And Rep. Edward Hanes, Jr. (D-Forsyth), a key sponsor of the school voucher bill, backed off on his support as it became clear the budget bill would pass – with the school voucher legislation included.

Reached for comment, principal of Greensboro Islamic Academy Sis. Widad Mohamed told NC Policy Watch her thoughts on the future of the Opportunity Scholarships program.

“I don’t know what I have to say, but we believe in God, and whatever God wants, it is gonna happen.”

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com.