Charter schools should join fight against state’s voucher program, say public education advocates

By: - April 26, 2023 12:30 pm

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Charter school leaders should join traditional public schools advocates to oppose the Republican-led General Assembly’s move to expand the state’s school voucher program, says Christine Kushner, a former Wake County school board member.

Kushner made her remarks during a recent panel discussion about the impact of charters on local school districts. The hour-long webinar was sponsored by Public Schools First NC, a public schools advocacy organization.

Expanding the state’s voucher program to make “scholarships” available to all families regardless of income would disrupt traditional public schools — even more than the lawmakers’ decision to lift the 100-school cap on charters in 2011, Kushner said.

Since the cap was lifted, the number of charters has more than doubled to 206. Critics contend that charters siphon scarce money and other resources from traditional public schools. Charters are public schools that operate without many of the restrictions placed on traditional public schools.

Nearly 9% of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students attend charters; nearly $1 billion was transferred from local districts to charter schools this year.

Christine Kushner

“If you really identify as a public school, which I think a lot of charters do, you should be alarmed about the voucher and the privatization movement,” Kushner said. “You should be alarmed … about for-profit charters because so much privatization is happening in states like Arizona, like Florida and legislators here in North Carolina are looking to those states.”

“Making school vouchers available to affluent families will disrupt the state’s unified system of public education, lead to more fragmentation and less accountability,” Kushner said.

A planned voucher expansion

Under Senate Bill 406, North Carolina would spend $3 billion on the so-called “Opportunity Scholarship Program” over the next seven years. Lawmakers created the Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2013 for the stated purpose of helping low-income families send children to private schools and religious schools.

Some private schools that accept public money in the form of voucher payments have been accused of discriminating against LGBTQ children and parents. Others feature controversial religion-based curricula that contradict modern science. Conservative lawmakers who back the program argue that parents deserve to send their children to schools that meet their needs.

This year, the state spent $133 million of the $176.5 million budgeted on more than 25,000 students to attend private, mostly religious schools.

Originally, eligible students could receive up to $4,200 to attend private schools. The maximum amount would grow to $7,213 under the new legislation.

“In sum, the bill dramatically accelerates the privatization of North Carolina’s school system,” Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the NC Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, wrote in an op-ed published by NC Newsline.

Kris Nordstrom, senior policy analyst

Nordstrom added: “Voucher expansion at this scale will exacerbate budget pressures in our already underfunded inclusive public schools, increase segregation (which of course was the original purpose of vouchers), and undermine the shared societal benefits of a strong public school system.”

Last week, Rep. Tricia Cotham, who this month switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, filed House bill 823, a companion to SB 406. Students would be eligible to receive at least 45% of the average state per-student expenditure for public schools, regardless of income. Students whose family qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches would be eligible for 100% of the average state per pupil allocation under the bills. Cotham appeared at a press conference with other GOP leaders on Wednesday to tout the bill.

The GOP’s plan to make vouchers available to more affluent families has been in motion for some time. Money for the program has exceeded demand, but conservative lawmakers have steadily introduced legislation to increase funding.

In 2013, when the program began, funding was capped at $10.8 million per year. It has grown to more than $133 million annually over the ensuing decade. Annual spending on private school vouchers would steadily increase until it reaches $500 million by the 2031-32 school year under the proposed legislation.

The legislation also removes requirements that voucher recipients must have previously attended public schools.

“Where vouchers like this have expanded in other states like in Arizona and Wisconsin, the proportion of people getting these vouchers or applying, most of them never went to public schools, so they have always been in private schools,” said Heather Koons, the communications director at Public Schools First NC.

Yevonne Brannon

A new public school alliance?

Yevonne Brannon, chair of Public Schools First NC’s Board of Directors and a former Wake County commissioner, said advocates for public schools would welcome the voices of charter leaders in the fight against vouchers and for-profit charter operators.

“The voucher program itself could pretty much bankrupt the education dollars in this state,” Brannon said. “It not only threatens traditional public schools, it threatens charter schools too.”

Brannon noted a half dozen GOP-sponsored bills that she believes are harmful to traditional public schools, including House Bill 219, a “Charter School Omnibus” proposal. It would allow charter schools to have access to district funding that is currently unavailable to them. For example, charters do not share grant funds that districts are awarded but would do so if HB 219 becomes law.

She also cited House Bill 618, which would replace the Charter School Advisory Board with a Charter School Review Board that would have the authority to approve, amend, renew or terminate charter schools. The current charter board reviews applications and make recommendations to the state board for approval. It also makes recommendations for renewals or terminations. The state board makes the final decision on those matters as well.

“Why would we take away a decent check and balance [which makes] sure that only quality charters are being established and only quality charters are being renewed?” Brannon asked. “Instead, we’re going to redo that and have an appointed board that’s going to become politically motivated.”

Meanwhile, Koons said that traditional public schools consistently out-perform charters in academic growth. One-third of charters were either low-performing or continually low-performing in the 2021-22 school year, she said.

“This notion that they’re going to provide this better academic environment for students, that their students are really going to grow and thrive academically is just not shown in the data,” Koons said.

Rodney Pierce, a seventh-grade social studies teacher and historian, used Hobgood Charter School in Halifax County to illustrate how the introduction of charters can cause schools to become more segregated. Although the Town of Hobgood is 49% Black, Pierce said, the school’s enrollment is 79% white, which is close to the 88% white enrollment the school had when it was a private school. Hobgood became a charter in 2019.

“Most of that percentage [the town’s Black population] who happened to be school-aged kids, were students in Halifax County Schools,” Pierce said.

Despite concerns about charters, Brannon said the voucher expansion is the real “wolf at the schoolhouse door.”

Private schools don’t have the same teacher requirements as public schools. They can hire someone with a high school diploma to teach biology or indoctrinate students with certain religious beliefs, Brannon said.

“We’re going to take public tax dollars for public education and not put them in a charter, not put them in a traditional public school but hand them out to private schools for private education,” Brannon said.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.