School Vouchers Come to North Carolina

By: - September 10, 2013 2:40 pm


Part II of an NC Policy Watch series

State Superintendent for Public Instruction, Dr. June Atkinson, told attendees at a luncheon last month that among all of the insults to public education that this year’s state budget offers, school vouchers are her “favorite.”

And by favorite, she means the worst offender.

Atkinson was careful to point out that she doesn’t have a problem with parents sending their kids to private schools or homeschooling their children. The problem, she said, is with the lack of transparency and accountability that is associated with school vouchers.

Private schools are not held to the same standards that exist for public schools. There are minimal requirements for student assessment and no standards at all for curricula, instructional staff and public accounting of the schools’ financial viability.

Private schools can also choose who they want to admit to their programs.

And the amount of money that a school voucher, or “Opportunity Scholarship,” is worth–$4,200 annually– leaves many wondering if it will ultimately amount to no more than a tax break for families who would have already taken advantage of a private school education.

Part I of this three-part series detailed the nuts and bolts of the Opportunity Scholarships Program, which lawmakers enacted in July by way of the 2013-15 biennial budget. Ten million dollars of the state budget was moved out of public education funds for school vouchers, which will be worth up to $4,200 for eligible families to use at private schools in North Carolina.

In Part II, NC Policy Watch examines the myriad ways in which private school vouchers raise questions of accessibility, transparency and accountability.


Public schools in North Carolina must accept all-comers because the law requires all school-aged children to attend school. This effectively means that public schools accept students of all educational abilities, household incomes, races and ethnicities, and religious affiliations.

Private schools, however, are not required to accept anyone who shows up at their doors. They have the discretion to admit any student they prefer, and many private schools administer entrance exams that assess academic ability, hold in-person interviews with parents, and require that their students actively participate in religious classes.

Students who are identified as needing special education services are entitled by law to receive an Individual Education Plan, or IEP. Public schools must accommodate special education students in accordance with their IEPs, but this is not a requirement for private schools, even those receiving taxpayer dollars.

Students are also subject to expulsion at the whim of private institutions, in some cases even if the student does not fit into the spirit of an institution.

The cost of attendance at a private school also factors into who will ultimately attend. While some private schools offer financial aid packages that are based on need, merit, or both – there’s no requirement in the school voucher legislation that asks private schools to go the extra mile and bridge the gap for students who come knocking with a voucher in hand.

“It’s our expectation that every family contributes something to the cost of attendance,” said Kim McDowell, director of admission and financial aid at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh. She said the school voucher will be counted as another income stream when expected family contributions are reviewed and a financial aid package is awarded.

The cost of attendance at St. Mary’s day school is $22,950 annually.

Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, is a key champion of the school voucher legislation. He told NC Policy Watch that this legislation was not intended for students to attend expensive private schools.

“I anticipate that this will help minority kids,” said Brandon. “I’m not interested in those kids going to lofty private schools, but church and community organizations that can accommodate those children who don’t work out in a public school. They [those children] won’t do any better at the lofty private schools than at the failing public schools.

According to findings by Rep. Rick Glazier, the average cost of attendance at private institutions in North Carolina ranges from $5,000 to $9,000—so even the bottom of that range exceeds the school voucher’s maximum value of $4,200.

“It’s clear to me that this is a politically motivated system that will provide a tax break to families who would have sent their children to private schools anyway,” said Kevin Brady, Assistant Professor in the Leadership, Policy and Adult and Higher Education (LPAHE) Department at NC State University.

“This is a school choice paradox,” said Brady. “On the surface, it seems like the voucher program is enhancing choice – but it’s enhancing choice for a select few, thanks to the negligible voucher amount.”

Academic standards and testing

Public schools have long held rigorous standards with regard to what students must ultimately learn. North Carolina’s long-established Standard Course of Study determines competencies for each grade level that are uniform across the state.

In 2010 the state began to transition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the North Carolina Essential Standards. The CCSS provides more rigorous guidelines for what students should be able to know and do in English Language Arts and Mathematics.

There are no curricular requirements for private schools in North Carolina. And teachers, who must be licensed in North Carolina’s public schools, are not required to have any professional training whatsoever in private schools.

North Carolina’s Division of Non-Public Education states on its website that “since North Carolina’s non-public schools receive no state tax dollars and enroll only about 10% of the compulsory attendance age children living in North Carolina, the State of North Carolina does not attempt to regulate the religious philosophy, educational philosophy or the operational policies of non-public schools.”

Yet despite the fact that those private schools will begin to receive taxpayer dollars in 2014, there’s no language in the school voucher legislation to regulate any of those areas.  

Private schools receiving taxpayer funds will be subject to minimal requirements with regard to testing students’ academic achievement and making that data publicly available.

While public schools must administer a raft of tests that include End of Course (EOC) and End of Grade (EOG) exams in addition to the national ACT for high school students, private schools receiving school vouchers will be required to administer a nationally-recognized standardized test of their choosing to students in grades three and higher each year.

The standardized test can be any that is comparable to a national norm group. That means the test can assess students on learning concepts related to math, science, or even Biblical studies, as long as students from across the United States also sit for this exam, so you can compare your students’ scores to those of students in Texas, for example.

Students’ performance on these tests must be disclosed to the State Education Administration Authority (SEAA), which is the entity that will administer the school voucher program. But only if a private school enrolls 25 or more voucher students will it be required to report performance data on the aggregate and make it publicly available.

“Publicly available,” in this case, means that parents or other interested parties may make a special information records request to see the student performance data. It does not mean that private schools must publish easily accessible data about student performance on their websites.

Atkinson would like to see a requirement that private schools and home schools receiving a tax credit administer EOGs and EOCs in the third grade and the eighth grade, so that students’ academic performance would be comparable against students who are in public schools.

“I have no idea how many parents will decide to use the vouchers,” Atkinson told NC Policy Watch. “But without some type of accountability, then any private school can say they are doing the best job, and we would have no idea if that’s true without data. If our end of grade and end of course tests are good enough for public schools, then they should be good enough for private schools.”

Rep. Brandon, however, disagrees. “Parents know what’s best for their children,” he said. “If it’s a good school, parents will go there. And if it’s bad, parents won’t. They won’t pay the extra tuition and get out of bed early to go send their kids to a bad school. Common sense prevails here.”

Atkinson says she does believe that it’s important to trust parents to make good decisions for their children—however, parents need data to be able to make a good decision.

“I think of myself. I have a doctorate, I have gone to school for a very long time, but if I had a child in school right now, I would want to know how my child is doing through a standard measure that I could use to compare to another school. I would want that information,” said Atkinson.

One parent recently asked Atkinson to direct him to school performance data that would help him pinpoint where exactly to move in the Charlotte metro area. He wanted his kids to be able to attend the best performing schools.

“Parents need data,” concluded Atkinson.

Financial oversight

In Wisconsin, home of the first school voucher program that was implemented in Milwaukee in 1990, there is voucher accountability bill currently moving through the legislature.

The bill reportedly has little support, but it is the first piece of legislation to require private schools receiving vouchers to report a wide range of student performance information to the state.

The legislation would provide an avenue for kicking to the curb underperforming private schools, barring them from receiving school vouchers.

Milwaukee’s voucher program is known for producing poor educational outcomes as well as rampant fraud and abuse.

A recent study concluded that Milwaukee students participating in the voucher program performed significantly worse in both reading and math than students in Milwaukee public school system.

At Milwaukee’s Mandella School of Science and Math, Principal David Seppah—who also founded the school—used proceeds from state voucher payments to buy two Mercedes-Benz automobiles at a cost of $65,000. Seppah also owed the state almost $330,000 for more than 200 checks officials acknowledged they “inappropriately” cashed. Many of those checks, worth about $1,500 a piece, were made out to families whose children never attended Mandella.

The head of another former Milwaukee voucher school, Henry Tyler, was indicted by a federal grand jury on counts of mail fraud and money laundering. State officials said the school owed nearly $500,000 for improperly cashed checks, improperly claimed summer school payments, past payroll payments and other debts. The indictment says Tyler defrauded federal food programs out of $196,000 between January 1, 2006 and May 5, 2006. Tyler also billed for 372 students, nowhere near the number of students attending the school. Tyler was suspected of using a school credit card to buy an $865 gold necklace from a Las Vegas pawnshop in May 2006.

In North Carolina, private schools will not have to present the results of a financial review conducted by a CPA until they receive at least $300,000 in school voucher funds.

Such little oversight for private schools’ financial management is especially concerning when one considers what just happened last week with a public charter school in Kinston.

That charter school, which should be subject to more rigorous scrutiny of its financial stewardship given that it is fully financed with taxpayer funds, shut down with very little notice thanks to problems with its financial operations.

Just two weeks into the school year, Kinston Charter Academy’s 230 students were left to scramble for a new school—at either one of the local public schools or at the other local public charter school, which is also having financial problems.

The voucher program is not universally liked in the Republican-led state legislature. Sen. Jerry Tillman told Asheboro’s The Courier-Tribune that he doesn’t like the voucher program because the private schools receiving vouchers have no oversight. The state will be giving these schools public funds but has no control over them.

“People say it’s great that vouchers can go to some of these Christian schools,” he said. “But I ask them, do you want to see money go to a Catholic school? Do you want to see it go to a Muslim school, one that teaches Islam? The way the law is written now, it can.”

This part of the legislation may be destined for the courtroom, Tillman said to The Courier-Tribune. He said the Supreme Court doesn’t allow public taxpayer funds to go to religious education.

That issue, and a closer look at some of the private schools that stand to benefit from the school voucher program, we will explore in Part III of School Vouchers Come to North Carolina.

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Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works as a Senior Writer and Researcher at the NC Public School Forum. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution and an Education Specialist at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. [email protected]