‘Out of hand.’ Add rules if NC private schools get $463M in new voucher money, CMS says Read more at: https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/education/article288455015.html#storylink=cpy

By Rebecca Noel

May 14, 2024


Private schools need more accountability if the North Carolina legislature hands out hundreds of millions in new tax money for student vouchers this year, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The N.C. General Assembly is working through final changes now on a $463 million bill to clear wait lists for opportunity scholarships — the state’s private school vouchers — one year after spending $505 million to vastly expand the program. It used to have an income cap, but anyone in the state is eligible now, regardless of income or whether they’ve already got a child in private school. The expansion strays from the initial intent of opportunity scholarships, which was to offer the ability to attend private schools to those who couldn’t afford tuition, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials say.

“The original intent was to assist families who needed that assistance, but now it seems to have gone to where it is just subsidizing families who were already affording (private school),” CMS board member Summer Nunn told other board members during a meeting last week.

It’s “gotten out of hand,” said CMS board member Lisa Cline. “I think we need to ask the General Assembly to reexamine what they’re doing,” she said.

CMS’s board proposed a legislative agenda last week asking the General Assembly to require all schools that receive voucher money to be held to the same standards as public schools in North Carolina, including testing and teacher qualifications.

WHAT IS THE N.C. GENERAL ASSEMBLY DOING WITH PRIVATE SCHOOLS?

The state started offering opportunity scholarships in 2014. They can be used to pay for tuition, transportation, equipment and other private school expenses. Prior to last year’s change, a family making 200% of the amount needed to qualify for federally subsidized meals could get funding. That’s an income of $111,000 for a family of four. The program’s expansion produced demand that far exceeded available funds, as applications more than doubled from years prior. Families received priority according to household income, with the poorest families getting top priority. House Bill 823, which is back in the House after changes in the Senate, would increase funding for the opportunity scholarship program by $463 million in the 2024-2025 school year to give scholarships to all of the over 54,000 students currently on the wait list. It would increase the total spending on the program over the next seven years by $1.83 billion. Over the next eight years, the North Carolina General Assembly is slated to spend $5.5 billion on private school vouchers. “With this brand new legislation, 45% of families who will receive this money make more than $245,000 a year, and 30% of those have never had a child attend public school,” Charles Jeter, a former Republican legislator who’s CMS’ director of government affairs, told CMS board members in a virtual meeting Friday. OPPORTUNITY SCHOLARSHIPS IN THE CHARLOTTE AREA The CMS comments come after Mecklenburg County saw more significant increases in opportunity scholarships than nearly any other part of the state. That’s even before the state opened up applications to families of all income levels. This school year marked the first time that Mecklenburg County saw more than 2,000 opportunity scholarship recipients, according to data from the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. Data is not yet available for how many Mecklenburg County students will receive opportunity scholarships during the 2024-25 school year. Mecklenburg County registered 2,152 scholarship recipients this year – an 80% increase over 2022-23. Only Cumberland County had more scholarship recipients, with more than 2,500, according to a Charlotte Observer analysis. Families in Mecklenburg and the six surrounding North Carolina counties received nearly 5,400 scholarships this year – about 17% of the roughly 32,500 scholarships in the state. Those counties represent about 21% of the state’s population. Statewide, recipients increased 27% from 2022-23 to 2023-24. That’s an increase from 25,568 to 32,541 recipients.

HOW CMS WILL LOBBY GENERAL ASSEMBLY

Private schools that receive state funding are not required to conduct the same standardized testing as public schools or adhere to the same scheduling or teacher qualification requirements.

“I think that if taxpayers are now having their money go into these private schools, that they should be held to the same standards of where the taxpayer money goes to public schools, too. I think it’s only fair, especially as a taxpayer in this state,” Nunn said. “Student outcomes should be the focus of any investment into a child in North Carolina, and there should be some measurement behind it.”

Private schools also are not required to adhere to Senate Bill 49, also referred to as the Parents’ Bill of Rights, or new legislation proposed this month that would require public schools to post all materials, lessons and lesson plans online within 10 days of them being taught. “If it’s such a good idea for the students who attend public schools, then why does it stop at the threshold of private schools? They’re not bound by any of these rules,” Jeter said. As the second largest school district in the state, CMS regularly drafts a legislative agenda of items it wants state lawmakers to address. Board members decided to add an item requiring all schools receiving taxpayer funding to abide by the same standards and regulations. Wake County Public Schools, the biggest public school system in the state, is in alignment with CMS. It asked the General Assembly to “prioritize public school dollars to fully fund public schools, not private school vouchers,” in its 2024 legislative agenda. After passing through both bodies of the legislature, House Bill 823 currently is back in the House to OK changes made by the Senate. WHAT

SUPPORTERS AND CRITICS HAVE TO SAY

Supporters of further expansion say House Bill 823 will empower every parent to cater to their individual child’s needs.

“We are thrilled that our state legislature continues to recognize that education funding should follow the individual needs of students rather than a system,” Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, told The Charlotte Observer. “The beauty of this expansion is that it prioritizes funding students, while at the same time recognizing families in the most need are first in line to receive the most in scholarship amounts.”

State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg County Republican, is one of four primary sponsors on the bill and one of the legislature’s leading proponents of voucher expansion. Cotham did not respond to the Observer’s request for comment.

Critics say taxpayer dollars would be better spent on already underfunded public schools, which educate 85% of the state’s children.

“With the $463 million the legislature plans to spend on opportunity scholarships, we could give a 4% raise to every school district employee in all 115 school districts in the state,” said Jeter, who voted for the creation of opportunity scholarships when he was a state representative in 2013. “That’s a choice that’s been made by the General Assembly. And it’s not just being changed for this year; they’ve changed it for all the out years, too.”

Mo Green, Democratic candidate for North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction, says it’s critical for the state to put more effort into funding its public schools. “We’re 48th in the country when it comes to public school funding…We spend about $5,000 less per student than the national average,” Green told attendees at a forum in Charlotte Thursday night. “If we were a very poor state, that might make sense, but we’re not.”

Green’s opponent, Republican nominee Michele Morrow, did not respond to The Observer’s request for comment.