While the attention of most North Carolina parents and educators remains focused on getting children back inside classrooms as safely and quickly as possible, the General Assembly is, unfortunately, trying to push through yet another expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship school voucher program.
House Bill 32 won approval from the House Education Committee in late March and will likely move quickly through the House and Senate; it was added to the House floor calendar yesterday.
Despite at best, their spotty record of accomplishment and notable lack of accountability, our legislators want to take even more public money and give it away to unregulated private schools. This must stop.
As director of Pastors for NC Children, a member of the group Every Child NC Coalition, Moravian clergy and public school parent, I strongly believe any attempt to move public money into private education is a violation of the moral, ethical and constitutional obligations of our General Assembly. Public schools are a public good, and public funds should only go to public education.
Public tax money going to private schools, most of which are religious, is a violation of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state and an affront to religious liberty. This past July, the state was sued in the case of Kelly, et. al vs NC because in violation of the state constitution the Opportunity Scholarship program allows discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual identity. At a bare minimum, no expansion of the program should even be considered until this case is decided.
The proposed legislation is rendered even more objectionable by the fact that the Opportunity Scholarship program has not used all the money already allotted by the General Assembly under current law. Despite this, legislators now want to expand program eligibility instead of keeping it limited to the low-income families it was supposedly created to serve. It’s been estimated that the proposed changes will cost the state $159 million over the next nine years.
This expanded and unconstitutional diversion of education dollars would come at the same time that our state courts have already made clear in the landmark Leandro school funding case that the General Assembly has dramatically underfunded public education over the last 27-plus years. Indeed, just last month the state agreed with plaintiffs on a plan that would add hundreds of millions of additional dollars to state education appropriations this year, and billions more over the next eight years to bring our schools further into constitutional compliance.
Amazingly however, many legislators, including House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger, have openly mocked this constitutional obligation. Is the constitution only important if it fits their agenda? Perhaps they need reminding that budgets are moral documents that show us what we value.
Instead of expanding vouchers, legislators should focus on fully enacting the investments and reforms necessary to provide our students the public education they are owed under our constitution. North Carolina needs to show its values to all of our state’s children by funding the public schools — schools that are required to serve every child who shows up at their door, especially the Black, Brown, and Indigenous children, children with special needs, children from low- wealth families, children in rural areas, English language learners, and pre-K children who have borne the brunt of our state’s persistent funding shortfalls.
Loving one’s neighbors and caring for the vulnerable are basic mandates of our Christian faith, as well as most every major religion in the world. We hear Jesus’s call in John:15 to love one another and bear fruit that will last. Providing a sound basic education for all of the children of North Carolina will certainly bear fruit for decades to come.
We are asking for basic funding needs to be met for all children across North Carolina to flourish. Let’s meet the minimum “sound basic education” requirements of our constitution, and then we can talk about how to provide the world class education our students and our state deserve. Children are our most precious resource. Let’s make sure our public schools have what they need to serve them.
The Rev. Suzanne Parker Miller is a Moravian minister and Executive Director of Pastors for NC Children. PNCC is a founding member of the EveryChildNC.org coalition pushing the NC General Assembly to #LeadWIthLeandro. Miller is also a parent to two elementary children in NC public schools. Learn more at PastorsForNCchildren.org or @Pastors4NCkids.