TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY: NC's voucher program needs checks, balances

Posted June 13, 2016
Updated June 24, 2016

North Carolina created the “Opportunity Scholarships” program in 2013, to provide tax dollars, in the form of vouchers, to low income students so they too could access broader educational choices within the private school sector.

While there is significant disagreement about the wisdom and effectiveness of this novel policy direction, there are several flaws that have little to do with politics or ideology, that make it fatally-flawed.

Legislators failed to include appropriate measures of accountability and transparency to ensure students taking advantage of school vouchers – and the taxpayers who provide the funding -- indeed benefit from a quality educational experience.

Through this program, taxpayers this past school year made $17.8 million available to about 2,500 students who receive the vouchers to attend private schools. In the next school year, there will be $24 million available. More than 5,600 applications have been submitted. The budget now being debated in the General Assembly includes a schedule to increase voucher funds to as much as $135 million by 2026. All headed to private schools that are able to shield themselves from public scrutiny.

Without building reasonable protections into the “Opportunity Scholarships” law to ensure quality educational experiences at participating private schools, who ends up being at the greatest risk for suffering harm? The very people the law intends to help: At­risk youth who need and deserve a sound basic education, like everyone else.

Significant inadequacies in the school voucher law – that could easily be addressed -- include:

Allowing funding for some “private schools” that are no more than home schools and have virtually no standards. Dozens of schools eligible for participation in the school voucher program serve less than five students. Several enroll just one child. These schools operate with virtually no academic standards. Because the state lacks oversight capacity, these schools may not even be complying with basic health and safety standards.

Private schools can discriminate. Despite receiving tax dollars, private schools are still free to turn away, at their whim, students who have a disability, are gay, have parents who are gay, or who don’t subscribe to a specific religious doctrine imposed by school operators.

The majority of voucher schools don’t have to reveal how they spend taxpayer dollars. While private voucher schools receiving more than $300,000 annually in taxpayer dollars must undergo a financial audit that is submitted to the state, that requirement only captures a very small portion of those currently receive public dollars. The remaining private schools are free to spend taxpayer money out of the eye of the public.

Teachers don’t have to be credentialed ­­ and private schools don’t have to be accredited. There’s no requirement in the “Opportunity Scholarship” voucher law that teachers be licensed. In fact, teachers don’t even need a college degree, only a high school diploma. While some teachers in private schools may have extensive subject area knowledge, lack of a license may indicate they lack the training and skills needed to effectively impart their knowledge on to their students. In addition, teachers do not have to undergo a criminal background check ­­ only the head of the school is required to undergo this important assurance of child safety.

Private schools participating in the “Opportunity Scholarship” voucher program do not have to be accredited by organizations that seeks to determine high standards for teaching and learning are being met. Individuals, owners or operators of private schools are not required to have experience in education nor are they subject to open meeting or open records laws that ensure important decisions and spending is explained and held accountable to parents and taxpayers

There is no way to know, for certain, how well students are doing academically at private schools. While voucher students are required to take a nationally­normed standardized test each year, none are specifically designated. So, it can be any test. There is no requirement that it mirror the tests students take in North Carolina’s local public schools or public charter schools. Thus, it is impossible to accurately compare the performance of voucher recipient students to their public school counterparts.

In addition, private voucher schools are only required to share test results if they meet a minimum threshold of students, which allows smaller private schools to hide student achievement data. This makes it difficult families to know – particularly when looking for the best schools for their children – which provide high quality educational opportunities.

Even for those private schools required to share student achievement results, or for those that volunteer to do so, there’s no threshold for success. If a school reports that its students are academically behind or failing, or if their students fail to achieve overtime, there’s nothing in the law to stop the flow of taxpayer dollars to a poorly performing school. It’s an unexplained double standards, particularly given North Carolina’s recent heightened efforts to hold taxpayer­funded public schools more accountable to show demonstrable student achievement in the classroom.

Graduation rates cannot be compared. That’s because private schools receiving vouchers are not required to calculate graduation rates in the same manner as public schools. They are also free to change or relax graduation requirements at any time, so for schools that do report graduation rates, it’s hard to know whether graduation is a true measure of students’ career and college readiness.

Private schools are free to teach whatever they want, don’t have to make their curricula public and are not subject to student achievement requirements. That’s right, there’s no requirement that voucher schools teach core subjects or other set curricula. To some, this complete freedom in deciding how to educate students, is an advantage to tailor instruction to specific student needs. However, when there are no standards for quality, some schools may cheat students out of receiving high quality educational experiences that prepare them for college or careers.

The vast majority of private schools in North Carolina are religious. Many of these schools use Christian­based textbooks that fail to teach students about modern advances in biology and genetics, misstate scientific fact -- even claiming dinosaurs and humans once cohabited the Earth.

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North Carolina is poised to spend nearly $1 billion over the next ten years on a school voucher program that provides no assurances that participating at­risk youth are accessing better educational options. It is past time that the General Assembly implement basic measures of accountability and transparency that our children deserve. Lawmakers should meet this responsibility now, before they adjourn the current legislative session.