Biggest recipient of taxpayer-funded school vouchers, Greensboro Islamic Academy, in financial trouble

Biggest recipient of taxpayer-funded school vouchers, Greensboro Islamic Academy, in financial trouble

- in Education
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Source: Greensboro Islamic Academy

State received 170 applications from students wishing to attend GIA this fall with vouchers

A private religious school receiving by far the largest payout from the state’s new school voucher program was in financial trouble during the last school year, pleading for help from the public online to fund its $150,000 shortfall so the school could complete the 2013-14 school year.

“The Greensboro Islamic Academy is suffering from a scarcity of funds,” said Eesaa Wood, a leader at the school’s parent organization, the Islamic Center of Greensboro, in a YouTube video posted online last January. The school has run a deficit of $150,000 every year, according to the fundraising pitch.

“For over a decade, the Muslim community of Greensboro has paid for this shortfall,” said Wood. “For that we are grateful to Allah…but we can no longer rely exclusively on this system.”

The school is the biggest recipient of all those participating in the state’s new Opportunity Scholarship Program, having already received 43 school vouchers totaling more than $90,000 dollars in public funds.

But as taxpayer money flows into Greensboro Islamic Academy’s coffers, questions arise: will the school be able to sustain itself going forward given the financial difficulties it faces? And if not, what happens to funds that taxpayers have already spent on private, religious education?

Financial troubles

Lawmakers enacted a school voucher program last year that pulls approximately $10.8 million dollars away from the public school system to allow students to attend private and religious schools instead.

Proponents of the program say the voucher program is a way to give students better choices when it comes to their education; critics say it siphons badly needed funds away from public education and funnels them into unaccountable, religious private schools that are not obligated to hold themselves to high quality teaching standards.

The state received 170 applications earlier this year from students wishing to attend Greensboro Islamic Academy (GIA) this fall with a school voucher – by far the most popular school chosen among voucher applicants and a very large number considering that the school only accommodated 130 students the previous year.

Since then, a high-profile court battle ensued, resulting in a Superior Court judge finding that the program violates the state’s constitutional mandate to use public funds only for public schools – but thanks to a Court of Appeals ruling last month, the state must disburse school vouchers that have already been awarded while the case winds its way through the state appellate courts.

In September, the N.C. State Educational Assistance Authority awarded 43 vouchers to students attending Greensboro Islamic Academy, totaling more than $90,000 tax dollars– nearly 8 percent of the $1 million+ in school vouchers that were disbursed to 109 private schools so far across the state. The next largest recipient of school voucher funds was Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, which received 26 vouchers totaling $54,600, followed by Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville, which received 18 vouchers totaling $37,800.

More voucher funds will be disbursed in the coming weeks, although it’s not clear how much more money, if any, GIA will receive.

According to its fundraising video, Greensboro Islamic Academy is the only full-time Pre-K through 8th grade Islamic private school in the Triad area – and it has struggled with financial obstacles since its inception in 2003.

“Because GIA never turns down any student because of financial need, this has resulted in a $150,000 deficit ever year,” said Islamic Center of Greensboro leader Eesaa Wood in his fundraising plea.

In January 2014, it apparently became clear to school officials that relying on their typical charitable donor base was no longer sustainable to keep the school up and running.

“We only need 1,500 donors…to give $100 each. Then, at least the need for this year will be met,” said Wood. The caption on the YouTube video explains to viewers that $150,000 was needed to complete the school year.

A link on the school’s YouTube fundraising video brings the viewer to a fundraising page that says the school raised only $374 of its $150k goal. Numerous calls and emails to school officials seeking more information about the financial status of Greensboro Islamic Academy, as well as calls to the Islamic Center of Greensboro, the parent organization of GIA, have gone unanswered. Efforts to reach out to the video’s narrator, Eesaa Wood, have also been unsuccessful.

Reached by telephone, GIA school board president Dr. Hatim Mahmoud, a physician practicing in Danville, VA, said he wouldn’t talk about the school with N.C. Policy Watch, despite the fact it now receives taxpayer dollars.

“We don’t talk to reporters. We don’t wanna talk to nobody. Goodbye,” said Mahmoud.

Tuition inflation?

Private schools in North Carolina are held to few accountability standards in order to gain state recognition—and the new school voucher law, enacted in 2013, requires few checks and balances on top of those minimal requirements for schools to comply with in order to receive state funds.

Notably missing in terms of standards with which private schools must comply? Requiring criminal background checks of any staff member except the head of school; any kind of curricular goals or guidelines; credentialed and/or licensed teaching staff and a requirement to reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of the district.

Greensboro Islamic Academy says in its fundraising video that it uses the same curriculum as Guilford County schools, in addition to offering Islamic studies, Arabic language classes and Quaranic memorization. It also administers one standardized test per year, in accordance with state law. Details of their curricula cannot be found on the school’s website, however, which mostly comprises weblinks that are nonfunctional.

One requirement for private schools to participate in the voucher program includes providing the state with documentation of the tuition and fees the school charges. Upon comparing what GIA submitted to the state as its 2014 tuition rates with older documents detailing tuition and fees, it becomes clear that the school dramatically increased its tuition rate around the same time the school voucher program became law.

On its 2012-13 student application form, GIA listed tuition rates of $2,850 per student, per year for class sizes fewer than 10. Students who were part of larger class sizes were offered a lower rate of $1,950.

In a document posted here detailing 2014-15 tuition rates, the amount increased by 120 percent for those in larger class sizes, to $4,360/year.

School vouchers are worth $4,200 maximum per year.

With an influx of 40-plus new students (the law requires this year’s Opportunity Scholarship holders to be former public school attendees, meaning that last year’s group of students attending Greensboro Islamic Academy would not qualify for vouchers), it’s not clear how the prior financial needs of GIA will be met, given that a larger student population will demand even more resources.

If new students are charged much more in tuition, it’s conceivable that surplus could be spread out and used to fund the operations of the entire school. Students would be educated on a cheaper per-pupil basis than the tuition rates would suggest.

“It’s certainly troubling if any school, in anticipation of voucher legislation being passed, artificially raised its tuition in order to maximize the taxpayer money coming to the school under the voucher program,” said former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, who now represents the N.C. School Boards Association in the school voucher litigation.

Recovering the funds

If the Greensboro Islamic Academy – or any other school receiving taxpayer funds under the new school voucher program — finds itself in a situation in which it cannot complete the next school year thanks to financial instability, then recovering public voucher dollars would likely be impossible.

“Keep in mind, the statue has been declared unconstitutional by the trial court,” said Orr of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. “Based upon the trial court’s ruling, no money should have been sent there.”

But the Court of Appeals allowed money to be disbursed to schools receiving voucher students while an appeal moves forward–and if the program is found to be constitutional by the state appellate courts, then, Orr says, getting money back from a failed school will be impossible.

“If a school fails, there will be no money to be sent back and I see nothing in the legislation that allows the state to recover it once the money is spent.”

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