Raleigh, N.C. — Cynthia Perry knows her 7-year-old, Amiyah, is good at math and would like to be better at reading.
"She loves reading, even though she struggles with it," the single mom from Wake Forest said Monday. Amiyah was in summer school last summer for help with reading, and she'll take extra classes again this summer.
"She still hasn't caught up yet," said Perry, who herself is a preschool teacher.
Although she thinks a private school, with smaller class sizes, might help her child, Perry can't even think about incurring that expense.
And that makes her a good example of why lawmakers are pushing what they call the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would give parents up to $4,200 in vouchers to send their children to private schools.
Many families have the option of sending their children to public schools, charter schools or private schools, depending on what works best for the child, said Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke.
"But for our low-wealth, working class families, that private school option is often not there," Clark said. "So what happens when they need another option?"
Its primary sponsors are a quartet of younger lawmakers, and it is backed by senior GOP leaders like Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, the Speaker Pro Tempore.
Do vouchers save public schools money?
Perry thinks that one thing that might help Amiyah would be smaller class sizes. There are 22 children in her first grade class, not giving her teacher a lot of time for one-on-one instruction with any child.
"That's neither her fault or mine, nor Wake County's," Perry said. But a voucher would give her the option of sending her child to a school with a smaller setting.
Advocates of voucher bills often point out that it takes a child out of the public school classroom, helping public schools balance their headcount as well. In fact, Stam has argued that instead of costing money, such scholarship programs save the state money because the average cost of educating a child in a public school classroom is more than the cost of the grant.
But school systems' budgets are complex and removing one student from a school doesn't necessarily result in that student's costs evaporating.
"Even if you lost a whole class, you've still got the facility upkeep and maintenance cost. You've still got to have the administration. And even that teacher would be absorbed elsewhere. It just doesn't amount to a savings that we can see," said Renee McCoy, director of public affairs for the Wake County School System.
House Bill 944, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is due to undergo a number of changes in the House Education Committee on Tuesday, according to primary sponsor Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg.
The measure calls for spending $10 million in its first year, giving $4,200 grants to students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. In the second year, the program would set aside $40 million. In that second year, students who come from families who made between 100 percent up to 133 percent of the free and reduced-price lunch threshold would also be able to get grants, but for only 90 percent of the full $4,200.
It's worth noting this is the second voucher bill to work its way through the House. The full House has already approved a measure to convert an existing tax credit program to a grant for disabled children who attend private schools.
Bryan said he expected House leaders to include the funding for the voucher bill in their version of the budget due out later this year.
Public money could pay for religious schools
Opponents of the bill say that private schools are not accountable to taxpayers and don't provide the same kind of testing or accountability as exists in public schools.
"It's the equivalent of trying to get healthy by no longer taking your heart rate," said Brian Lewis, political director for the N.C. Association of Education on this week's edition of On the Record.
Backers of the bill, including Bryan, say the bill that goes forward will have reporting requirements that ratchet up for schools with 25 or more Opportunity Scholarship students.
Lewis also targeted the grant as insufficient to pay a student's way at a top-flight private school, which can cost $10,000 per year or more. But Darrell Allison, president of N.C. Parents for Educational Freedom, who appeared on the same program, said there are many private schools that cost less.
In particular, schools affiliated with religious institutions often have lower tuition rates and are founded with a mission to serve poor families.
Several speakers at a news conference organized by Parents for Educational Freedom, were from church-run schools that got involved in education because of frustration with traditional public schools.
Bishop Phillip Davis, senior pastor of Nations Ford Community Church, says his congregation's Male Leadership Academy was founded to help educate "high potential, low opportunity" youth, a label he once bore.
"There are many more who we would love to be part of our leadership academy, but their families, quite frankly, can't afford to send them to us, and to me, that's not acceptable," Davis said.
The connection between religious institutions and many private schools has drawn opposition to the bill.
"The bill is attempting to do something the state can't constitutionally do, which is pay for children to get a religious education," said Sarah Preston, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. Checks from the program would be made out to the parent but the money would end up in the coffers of any private school they might choose. That is a "work around," Preston said, to avoid running afoul of rulings that say the state may not directly fund religious institutions.
"We're still concerned," she said.
Vouchers have been controversial in many states. The Louisiana Supreme Court recently struck down a voucher program in that state, saying it illegally took money away from public schools.
And Parents for Education Freedom has been the target of criticism itself, coming under fire from liberal watchdogs for its efforts to woo lawmakers on the topic of school choice.
Research on vouchers is mixed
The voucher bill is creating some unusual bipartisan alliances between Republicans like Bryan and Democrats, particularly African-American Democrats, who see the voucher bill as a way to give students in their districts a shot at a better education.
Rep. Ed Hanes, D-Forsyth, told of a parent in his district whose child was assigned to a school where only 33 percent of children left third grade proficient in reading. Three other nearby schools were options for her child, Hanes said, but each time she applied, the school system told her those schools were full.
"Does that parent really have a choice?" Hanes asked. "I came to the conclusion she did not." The scholarship bill, he said, would give that parent the ability to choose another school, even if it wasn't a public school.
The question that may drive much of the upcoming debate is whether students, both those who receive vouchers and those left behind in public schools, would be better off with the program in place.
When asked why public schools could be improved if money earmarked for vouchers were plowed back into those classrooms, Allison said the amount was only a drop in the bucket for the state's public school system. State taxpayers alone will put $8 billion into K-12 public schools before any additional investments by individual counties.
"So what idea do they have that they could do something for a child like Cynthia's for $50 million over two years?" Allison said.
He and other advocates point to what they view as voucher success stories, in particular Milwaukee, where a voucher program has been running for two decades.
Some research suggests students who receive vouchers perform better in the long run, while other reviews suggest students don't do significantly better than their counterparts in public schools.
That split is typical of research on vouchers overall.
A 2010 study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, for example, found that competitive pressure brought about by Florida's voucher program lead to increased test scores in public schools.
"The gains occur immediately, before students left the public schools to use a voucher, implying that competitive threats are responsible for at least some of the estimated effects of the voucher program," the study found. That finding echoes findings in policy papers by groups advocating for voucher programs.
Other studies question the gains claimed by voucher proponents.
"(T)he best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero," concluded a 2008 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. "Further, what little evidence exists about the likely impact of a large-scale voucher program on the students who remain in the public schools is at best mixed."
Helen Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics, says academic studies still can't prove a link between voucher programs and increased student performance.
"There's not evidence for that," she says in a video for the anti-voucher Public Schools First group. "I've looked at lots and lots of studies from different countries around the world. There's no evidence that this competitive mechanism is what leads to better schools."
Public Schools First points to a 2011 paper by researchers at George Washington University, that concluded that a decade of research on voucher programs hadn't found strong effects on student achievement. It also cautioned readers that much of the research was not conducted by disinterested parties.
“We were surprised to find so many studies done by pro-voucher groups,” Nancy Kober, co-author of the CEP study, said in a news release accompanying the report. “While this doesn’t mean researchers with definite positions on vouchers can’t be objective, it speaks to the need for outside scrutiny of study methods and guidance from objective expert panels.”