N.C. Rep. Rodney Moore knows he broke rank.
But the four-term legislator and state House Democratic Whip, who joined seven other African American Democrats last month in publicly backing private school vouchers—long a bastion of the political right—says he’s “disheartened” by persistent data on racial achievement gaps and the so-called school to prison pipeline. That’s a term describing K-12 discipline practices that disproportionately funnel at-risk students, particularly students of color, into the criminal justice system.
“We can’t let the education of our children be a partisan issue,” Moore says. “I understand that my Democrats are against it, but it’s here now, so we need to make sure that we’re participatory, at least to the point where we can have some influence to modify things and make those providers accountable.”
Accountability is the buzz-word of the moment for voucher-backing progressives like Moore, many who hail from districts chockablock with struggling public schools.
They note North Carolina’s voucher program, unlike most GOP-controlled states ramping up similar systems, lacks mandates for state accreditation, basic teaching certification, minimum curriculum requirements or, in most cases, financial auditing.
But with public school critics also bemoaning widespread reports of LGBTQ discrimination in the state’s mostly religious private schools, their support comes at a time of mounting scrutiny and criticism for private school vouchers.
Such criticisms may have only been bolstered by last week’s report from Duke Law School, which cited North Carolina private school accountability measures as “among the weakest in the country” and blasted a lack of verifiable data to back up claims that failing public school students may be rescued by their private school counterparts.
On the contrary, the Duke report noted, comparable students who remain in public schools are scoring better than voucher students on national tests. Meanwhile, more than half of the state’s voucher students are scoring below the national average.
Among its conclusions, the report argued for a major overhaul of North Carolina’s voucher program, dubbed The Opportunity Scholarship Program. That includes greater oversight, reporting of academic trends, anti-discrimination measures and more.
Some of these notions are reflected in the ideas of Democrats like Moore and Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a former high school teacher representing several counties in northeastern North Carolina who joined Moore at last month’s pro-voucher press conference.
Indeed, Moore and Smith-Ingram tell Policy Watch they will float multiple bills this session aimed at refining North Carolina’s ballooning school voucher program, which, over the next decade, is currently budgeted to cost the state roughly $900 million.
Smith-Ingram says two of her children attended a private school near her home in Northampton County. And while she’s heard the frequent criticism from most Democrats and public school advocates, Smith-Ingram calls herself a believer in the “specialization” of the state’s various K-12 options.
“When you know you want two all-beef patties, special sauce and pickles on a sesame-seed bun, you know exactly where you’re going to go,” she says. “So I think it’s important for each of our educational avenues to carve out that niche for themselves, but to have the access and resources that they can promote the strong education which we, by our North Carolina constitution, say we want to afford for all our students.”
Of course, any legislation fronted by Democrats is likely to face an uphill climb in the GOP-dominated N.C. General Assembly, but Moore and Smith-Ingram say their bills will nevertheless take up accountability, transparency in testing and, perhaps, LGBTQ protections in voucher schools.
While the state’s relatively new voucher law forbids discrimination based on race, color or national origin, its GOP authors notably left gaps in the anti-discrimination provisions for religion, disability, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.
As Policy Watch reported last year, one Christian school in Lee County required students, parents and school employees sign a document declaring same-sex relationships “immoral and sinful.” Enrollment in the K-12 school could be denied or revoked based on a family’s position on the issue.
Meanwhile, media outlets have reported in recent years on multiple voucher-eligible religious schools with similar admissions policies that may shun LGBTQ students or families practicing other religions, although lawmakers on the right and the left have been reluctant to take up greater state-ordered provisions.
Smith-Ingram says Democrats aren’t waffling on protecting all students, but she speculates political pressure and the long odds on her party speedily retaking control of the state legislature may deter some legislators.
“I hate to sound partisan,” she says. “But definitely if we make these races more competitive and we make these seats more competitive, you will get more legislators committed to doing what we have been elected to do, when the public holds us accountable for this, when they either fire us or continue to hire us based on our response to these issues.”
Moore says he was not aware of any reports of discrimination before he was interviewed by Policy Watch this week, but the Charlotte Democrat says he may file a draft bill in the next week to demand express protections for such students.
“Discrimination anywhere shouldn’t be tolerated,” says Moore, who adds Democrats should not be dissuaded by the tough prospects of advancing non-discrimination legislation at a time when state lawmakers are bickering over repeal of the widely-unpopular House Bill 2.
“It’s a tough issue to deal with,” Moore acknowledges. “And a lot of times my colleagues don’t want to deal with those tough issues because they feel like the legislation they propose would be fruitless. I’m of the mindset that you keep pushing the boulder up the hill until you get up the hill.”
Matt Hirschy, Director of Advancement for the non-profit Equality N.C., which advocates for LGBTQ North Carolinians, says all in the state should be paying attention to this debate.
“It’s always a major issue when we’re talking about any North Carolinian and their children and their access to education,” says Hirschy. “Especially when it comes to bullying and admissions discrimination in a publicly funded institution, it’s something we should all take seriously.”
Hirschy, however, isn’t too optimistic about the prospects for anti-discrimination bills in today’s legislature. His group, he says, has been urging GOP leadership to include broader protections for all students since lawmakers enacted the voucher program in 2013.
“They weren’t willing to add them then. I’m not sure why they’d be willing to add them now,” says Hirschy. “I am happy to be proven wrong on that but I’m not very optimistic given this legislature’s track record with our community.”
Representatives from the office of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, one of the state’s most outspoken voucher supporters, did not respond to requests for comment from Policy Watch.
But LGBTQ discrimination is just one of many complaints public school advocates have with North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarships Program. Opponents point to new data that suggest voucher students nationwide, much like those in North Carolina, seem to be trailing their peers in traditional public schools, even though many GOP-controlled states such as North Carolina are increasingly lending such programs financial support.
Of course, North Carolina researchers are bound by a severely limited data set to assess the results. State law mandates only a fraction of voucher schools, those with 25 or more voucher recipients, make their test scores public.
In 2015-2016, that was just about 22 percent of the state’s 6,000 or so voucher students, coming from only about 10 percent of North Carolina’s participating private schools.
And, given state law allows private schools far greater latitude than traditional schools in choosing standardized tests, it’s difficult to make fair comparisons.
That’s one of the issues Smith-Ingram says she plans to take up with legislation this session. The Northampton County Democrat says a pending draft bill will require greater limitations on the number of tests private schools may choose.
“The list of tests is so broad that, at the end of the day, you really can’t compare apples with oranges or even bananas,” says Smith-Ingram. “This is like all the fruits and meats and vegetables in there too.”
Smith-Ingram’s bill should also strengthen public disclosure requirements for most private schools, she says, by requiring state reporting of academic outcomes for private schools with more than 10 voucher students. The Democratic senator adds that she also disagrees with the state’s growing financial stake in private schools.
“I am not in support of the $10 million per year increase in this program,” she says. “I believe that’s arbitrary. It certainly is not going to give us the room we need to do the type of investment we need to do in the public schools.”
Moore, however, isn’t balking at the cost. “We’re talking about a $20 billion budget for the most part,” he says. “So $900 million, if it works to give children a chance to flourish, is a sound investment for me.”
Moore compares his backing for the state’s voucher program to his support for the endangered healthcare mandates of Obamacare, pointing out thousands of state students are participating in the voucher program today.
“It would be hard for me to say we’re not going to give your child this opportunity, that we’re going to claw back and put them back in a public school they may not flourish in,” Moore said. “For me, the human factor, I’m really very mindful of that.”
And what of the critics? Moore says he’s not too concerned.
“We have some alarming numbers, especially when it comes to African-American males,” he said. “That is why I felt it was time to come out as African-American legislators and say that we support all options for our children. I knew I was going to get some blowback, but I’m used to blowback. That’s what I do.”