U.S. Education Secretary DeVos attends roundtable in Raleigh

By A.P. Dillon, North State Journal

RALEIGH — Parents, students, lawmakers and non-profit leaders came together to meet with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for a roundtable discussion of North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program and the state’s other school choice options.

The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) oversees a number of grants, such as the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which provides $4,200 a year to eligible low-income students for tuition at the participating private school of their choice.

The state also has two options for students with special needs — the Children with Disabilities Grant and the Education Savings Account. The Children with Disabilities Grant Program gives up to $8,000 per year, and the Education Savings Account (ESA) Program provides up to $9,000 per year to students who enroll in a participating nonpublic school, including home school.

The roundtable discussion was hosted by Parents for Educational Freedom NC (PEFNC), a statewide organization that supports greater educational options and equal access to those options through parental school choice.

PEFNC President Mike Long’s opening remarks noted that one in five students in North Carolina have chosen a school outside of the traditional public school system, including charter schools, homeschools and private schools.

“We are coming together today at a pivotal time: the year 2020, where the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has shown in stark reality just how crucial school choice is to the welfare of families,” said Long.

DeVos thanked Long and PEFNC for arranging the roundtable before making some brief remarks. She said that no matter what background or income level a family comes from that “all families have an opportunity to equally access a quality education.”

“There is so much more progress to be made and we’re seeing it now as families across the country have been more aware in the last six to eight months of their own children’s education,” said DeVos. “What they are and are not learning… What the schools are or are not doing to meet their children’s needs.”

President Trump’s education priorities have included the expansion of parental school choice, and in the past, he has several times called on Congress to pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, a $5 billion annual tax credit for businesses and individuals that donate to scholarship funds.

DeVos said that if North Carolina and other states participated in the administration’s proposal it could mean $160 million to help meet the demand for more educational options.

One of the themes expressed by all participants is the idea gaining rapid support of “funding students instead of systems.”

“We should be talking about funding a child, not a system or building,” said DeVos during the Q&A session. She said parents know what is best for their child and whether a school is meeting the needs of their child or not.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest made an appearance via a recorded video message. He also says that North Carolina should be funding students first, not the system. Forest pointed out that PEFNC and lawmakers in the room stood up to protect the OSP when Gov. Roy Cooper had sought to defund the program in his budget submitted in August.

“When our governor is prohibiting millions of children from having any in-person instruction this school year, your courageous efforts provide the leadership that gives families access to full-time quality instruction,” Forest said.

Around the middle of September, Cooper announced that only elementary school students would be able to return for daily in-person instruction.

Lawmakers have heard from parents all over the state who currently use the OSP as well as those who have children struggling with remote instruction and wanted to find better options. Some help came in the form of the $1.1 billion Coronavirus Relief 3.0 bill, which expanded the OSP’s income eligibility threshold from 133% to 150% of the amount required for a student to qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Access to the scholarships was also expanded by eliminating the cap on awards for students entering kindergarten and first grade. The bill also included an allotment of $6.5 million to eliminate waitlists for the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and Education Savings Account Program.

Cooper signed the bill and issuing a short statement that said in part the relief bill should have “done more to expand Medicaid.”

Joining Long and DeVos were Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) and Joseph Kyzer, the communications director for House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain). Other lawmakers included co-chair of the Senate Education Committee Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watagua) and Senate Education Committee member Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth).

“I think everyone — Republicans and Democrats — understands that opportunity for education is really the great equalizer for our nation,” said Berger. He added the big policy question is how to help the most families access those educational opportunities.

Berger said it is important the public money for education find its way to where the students are and so that the “money follows the student.” He also talked briefly about how the legislature had managed to forward-fund the OSP through 2027 to the tune of $144.8 million dollars.

“That sounds like a whole lot of money,” said Berger. “But the reality is that only represents 1.4% of the total state dollars that go to education today. You can imagine what that will be in education dollars when we get to 2027.”

Kyzer said that the legislature has gotten school choice programs done by being balanced and having a comprehensive approach. He went on to highlight a number of the school choice options the state pays for in addition to the OSP and education savings accounts such as the AP and IB exam fees and the NC Promise Program which offers $500 a semester tuition at three state universities.

“It is not a binary dichotomy, like a lot of opponents of school choice want to make it… that if you are expanding here, it has to take away from there,” said Kyzer of Republican lawmaker’s expansion of school choice. “They’ve really shown that you can make really powerful investments that have made us top in the country.”

Three families currently using the OSP participated in the roundtable.

“The thing most frustrating is the feeling like you don’t have a voice,” said Jessica Edwards of being a parent during the pandemic. She and her family are in Cumberland County, where the school district is still operating on Plan C, which is complete remote instruction.

Edwards is military spouse from Fayetteville with two school-aged children, a son in high school and a daughter, Mia, in fourth grade. She said Mia has ADHD and has struggled in school, but the pandemic and remote instruction “really brought that to light.”

Chloe Dixon, a single mom from Hope Mills, said she made the choice to pull her oldest daughter, Savannah, out of public schools about three days into remote instruction. The OSP helped pay for one of her children to get an in-person education, but that she can’t afford to send all three. She said juggling her job and helping her other two school-aged children stuck behind computer screens has been a huge struggle.

“I just found out on my way up here, he’s assignments behind,” said Dixon of her nine-year-old son in third grade. “I had no idea.” She added that unless parents are sitting beside their child all day every day, they have no idea what the children are missing.

Melanie Osborne of Raleigh brought her oldest child Allaura with her to the roundtable. Osborne has four other daughters who are quadruplets, one of which has hearing loss issues and requires special resources, which she is able to get using funds from the OSP’s disability grant.

“As a single mom, balancing work and online education has been very tough for us. While my daughter is now in a small private school, two of my children are full-time virtual learners, and it’s been a struggle,” said Osborne.

Osborne said their family has participated in the OSP for six years after realizing that her oldest daughter really needed a higher level of instruction than their public school was providing. Osborne called it “crushing” to hear that there were people trying to take the OSP away.

Osborne’s daughter Allaura said she’s had more extracurricular opportunities at her school like student government and debate and that she has been able to find her passion, which is giving back to the community.

“I wouldn’t have ever gotten these opportunities if it wasn’t for the Opportunity Scholarship,” said Allaura, now a senior at North Raleigh Christian Academy.