Blurred lines between home schools and private schools open the door for possible fraud and abuse
Standing in the doorway of her home, Carol Miller remembers when Paramount Christian Academy was a larger operation. Housed by Westchester Baptist Church in High Point more than ten years ago, the private Christian school then had three teachers, Miller and two other women, and sometimes welcomed 15 students through its doors each school day.
But things have changed at Paramount. The two other teachers left the school and now it is solely operated by Miller, who teaches her granddaughter, a neighbor’s child and a student with special needs out of her home in rural Thomasville, 30 minutes away from its former location.
Paramount now functions more like a home school, yet it remains on the Division of Non-Public Education’s (DNPE) list of recognized conventional private schools. That means students who are currently enrolled in public school and meet certain income eligibility criteria will be eligible to receive publicly-funded school vouchers for use at Paramount in 2014.
The school voucher program is intended for use at private schools only. But thanks to weak laws and a lack of capacity to ensure compliance, anyone who opens a school in their home may be able to get public money—and face little in the way of accountability.
No academic standards required in NC voucher program
Families in North Carolina will be able to participate in the Opportunity Scholarships program beginning with the 2014-15 academic school year.
The new school voucher system that the General Assembly passed into law last July will provide low-income students currently enrolled in public schools with up to $4,200 annually to use at state-recognized private schools (the list of endorsed schools is viewable here ).
Lawmakers pushed for school vouchers, arguing that North Carolina’s public schools are failing its low-income and minority students and that families should have the choice—at the expense of taxpayers— to send their students to private schools as an alternative. The voucher program will siphon $10 million dollars away from the public school system in its first year, and is expected to expand in the future.
School voucher programs have been on the rise since Milwaukee implemented them in 1990, with 13 states and the District of Columbia implementing their own voucher programs since that time.
Private schools that receive school vouchers are typically subject to few regulatory requirements and are free to create their own standards. While some private schools hold themselves to high quality standards for their teachers and curricula, they are often not legally required to do so.
Milwaukee has become known for rampant fraud and abuse of its voucher program —and its poor educational outcomes. The founder and principal of Milwaukee’s Mandella School of Science and Math used taxpayer funds to purchase his own Mercedes, and a recent study  concluded that Milwaukee students participating in the voucher program performed significantly worse in both reading and math than students in the Milwaukee public school system.
North Carolina law requires nothing in the way of academic standards, curricula or accountability measures for its non-public schools.
A private school or a home school?
Miller says she’s looking for another location for Paramount, but she’s fallen on difficult financial times. Her students pay what they can of tuition, which costs about $400 per month. She receives social security benefits and sells books on Amazon to bring in extra income.
Asked why she thinks her school should be considered a private school rather than a home school, Miller paused. “I think we are a little more organized and we have more discipline than home schools,” she said.
The requirements enshrined in North Carolina law actually don’t look very different between home schools and private schools.
The home school law  was recently amended to allow people who are not legal guardians educate children in group settings. Educators must hold at least a high school diploma, operate on a regular schedule, maintain immunization and attendance records, and administer a nationally standardized achievement test each year.
Private schools  have to do those things too, and also meet fire, safety and sanitation standards, asbestos regulations, issue driving eligibility certificates to students between the ages of 15 and 17, and provide protective eyewear to students who are in laboratory settings.
There are no requirements with regard to curricula or teacher preparation.
Miller, who says she has no teaching credentials but does have an M.S. in science from UNC-Greensboro, provides her students with instructional materials from the A-Beka Book publisher and Bob Jones University Press, which are commonly used in Christian home schools and private schools.
These texts teach students Bible-based facts , including the following: dinosaurs and humans co-existed on Earth; slave-masters generally treated their slaves well; in some areas, the KKK fought the decline in morality by using the sign of the cross; and gay people have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.
Asked if she is keeping up with requirements related to fire and sanitation standards, Miller said, “well, I’ve called the fire department…I do need to get them out here at some point. The health department too.”
A lack of oversight
The Division of Non-Public Education is tasked with publishing a list every year of recognized conventional private schools in the state that are complying with state laws and regulations.
Eighty-three private schools out of the approximately 700 on that list have fewer than 10 students.
When asked in October about these schools and whether or not they were really home schools, DNPE’s director, David Mills, said “They’re just starting out. They’re not home schools. They’re probably catering to kids with learning disabilities or accelerated learners.”
The Division of Non-Public Education does not seem to have much recourse in making sure that private schools are actually private schools and not home schools. Mills explained to NC Policy Watch that non-public school identification is not determined by, for example, their nature of their facilities, but by the Notice of Intent that DNPE receives from the school. The non-public school informs DNPE initially as to whether they are intending to operate as a conventional school or a homeschool.
And that’s all it takes to be classified as either a home school or a private school.
Prior to his promotion as director of DNPE, Mills was the only program officer tasked with conducting site visits of all 700 conventional private schools in the state to ensure their compliance with state laws. He tried to get out to each of them about once every three years, Mills said in October.
NC Policy Watch requested the records that DNPE has on file for Paramount Christian Academy. Their office was able to supply only one paper, which was a letter from the former head of the school indicating she was leaving and the new contact person would be Carol Miller.
What about evidence of the school’s compliance with fire, sanitation, safety, immunization and testing standards?
“Our office does not keep the annual fire and sanitation inspections or any immunization records or standardized achievement test results on the individual Non Public Schools,” said Mills. “They are left at the school since they are under G.S. 115C-17.3 which requires confidentiality.”
What about record of the last site visit made to Paramount to review these records?
“We have no record of the last visit to Paramount,” said Mills.
No plans to vet NC schools benefiting from vouchers
“Well, this is very interesting and it raises a lot of questions,” said Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, a proponent of school choice and a secondary sponsor of the school voucher legislation.
“Basically it sounds like this is a home school,” said Hardister about Paramount, “and I’d like to see what the law says.”
Hardister reiterated his support for school choice and believes that parents should be able to send their children to private school if that is their desire.
“I think it’s great if these [private] schools are governed the right way,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone should be able to start a home school, call it a private school and be able to receive Opportunity Scholarships…most of us want these schools to be held accountable.”
The Division of Non-Public Education maintains that they are not responsible for overseeing the Opportunity Scholarships program thanks to how the law is written in the school voucher legislation.
The DNPE is mandated to hand over their list of legally operating conventional schools to the NC State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA), who uses the list to determine which private schools in the state are eligible to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship program.
Then the NC SEAA is also charged with checking in with those private schools to make sure they want to participate in the state’s voucher program, accepting and reviewing applications for vouchers and making disbursements to families.
Asked if the NC SEAA will vet the list of conventional private schools to make sure they’re not actually home schools, Elizabeth McDuffie, director of Grants, Training and Outreach, said no.
“If the Division of Non-Public Education has a private school on its list, then they comply with the statute and they are a legally operating private school.”
“That’s all we can do—comply with the statute,” said McDuffie.
Paramount’s Carol Miller was interested to learn about the new voucher program to help sustain her struggling school.
“That’s great to hear,” she said about the vouchers. “I’ll be looking into it for sure.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919.861.1460 or [email protected]