Editorial: More questions, more answers needed on worth of private school vouchers

Posted August 11, 2017 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated August 11, 2017 5:54 a.m. EDT

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CBC Editorial: Friday, Aug. 11, 2017; Editorial # 8197
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

Anyone who might be looking for an assessment of or justification for North Carolina’s private school voucher program won’t find them in two new studies from N.C. State University. The information isn’t there and subsequent studies will analyze early academic impact. These studies shed NO light on the performance or value of the taxpayer-financed “Opportunity Scholarship” program.

That doesn’t mean that private school voucher fans won’t twist the findings to show the program which helps make private schools more affordable for low-income families, is working.

But in both reports, it is the questions that weren’t asked along with the facts and answers that were not gathered, that are the most significant. There is NOTHING in either report that shows the program is achieving any of its goals. Nor do they provide ANY EVIDENCE that the voucher students are better or worse off, learning any better, more or less, than at their previous public schools.

Last month, the N.C. State University College of Education released two reports: “Private School Leaders’ Perspectives on the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program,” and “Parent Perspectives: Applicants to North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program Share Their Experiences”

What do we know from the reports?

  • 58 percent of the private schools in the state registered to participate in the voucher program and 44 percent actually ended up enrolling recipients in their schools.
  • Parents are concerned about hidden and unanticipated costs they must pay, including transportation and meals, that are provided free of charge by traditional public schools.
  • 45 percent of the families that received vouchers didn’t use them.
  • Participating families express satisfaction with their child’s private school, with 94 percent giving it an “A” or “B” while 73 percent gave their child’s previous public schools a “C” or lower.
  • The main thing that distinguishes the private schools from public schools is that most private schools participating in the program require less standardized testing.

The researchers are up-front about the limits of their work. They are specific about the questions asked and information gathered. It is clear they didn’t look into instructional rigor, teacher quality, curricula, materials or other kinds of information that might help assess school and student performance and achievement.

How parents “feel” about their children’s education is distinctly different from how students are actually “doing” and “learning.” What private school leaders have to say about the school voucher program doesn’t reveal anything about whether the schools are operating in the best interests of the students who are there at taxpayer expense.

Again and again, the legislature has failed to provide even the most bare-boned requirements for accountability and transparency on the schools that receive taxpayer funds. At the same time, more and more money is being flooded into the unproven program -- $44.8 million this year with growth to $144.8 million in 10 years.

At the same time warning signs of the need for more oversight appear. An employee Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville – the largest recipient of state voucher dollars – pleaded guilty to embezzling $388,000 that was supposed to go to paying school employee state income taxes.

The money was repaid and the teacher and basketball coach, Heath Curtis Vandevender who is the son of Trinity Christian Church founder Rev. Dennis Vandevender, received a fine, an active sentence on work release and also continues to teach and coach at the school.

While the legislature won’t hold the schools that receive voucher funds accountable, we urge Gov. Roy Cooper to follow the example of former Gov. Jim Martin, who in 1985 ordered his budget director to review every pork barrel spending item in the state budget. Cooper should have his budget office assess whether the private schools getting state funds are proper businesses, appropriately accredited and using the funds as intended.

North Carolina taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent. The legislature should require appropriate accountability and transparency from the schools. The governor needs to display the determination and independence to demand it himself if the legislature won’t.

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