RALEIGH — A voucher program state legislators are considering would have less oversight and looser standards than other states that allow parents to use taxpayer money to pay private school tuition.
Under the proposed program, accreditation would be optional for private schools that accept vouchers. Schools would have to agree to give students a nationally standardized test each year, but the results would not be known to the public unless the school enrolls more than 25 voucher students.
The House budget set aside $10 million for vouchers this year for families meeting income requirements, and $40 million next year. Parents would receive $4,200 per child to help cover private school tuition. Vouchers are in play in the negotiations between House and Senate budget writers.
Rep. Marcus Brandon, a High Point Democrat who co-sponsored the bill for opportunity scholarships, said the section on accreditation is intentionally weak because he wants churches and neighborhood centers in poor communities to be able to start schools. His main interest is for education options for children in poor neighborhoods, and he worries that only the more expensive, established schools would be able to meet accreditation requirements.
All public schools have to be accredited, he said. That doesnt mean theyre performing.
Critics say vouchers siphon money from public schools to private schools that are not accountable for the education they offer. Voucher supporters say the schools will be accountable to parents, who are in the best position to know what their children need.
Other states have stiffer standards for private schools that accept vouchers.
In Indiana, schools must be accredited. Indiana also requires privates schools that want to accept vouchers to apply to the state and agree to basic curriculum requirements.
Indiana and Louisiana require students using vouchers to take the same tests as public school students. Indiana gives private schools accepting vouchers A-F performance grades, as they do public schools.
June Atkinson, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, has been at the forefront of calling for more accountability in the proposed voucher program. She wants the private schools that accept vouchers to be graded along with public schools.
Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte Republican and voucher-bill sponsor along with Brandon, said the comparison with Indiana is unfair because Indiana required private schools to give state tests before it started its voucher program.
Though North Carolina private schools wont have to give the same tests as public school students, we upped the testing requirements, Bryan said, to require tests every year rather than just in grades three, six, nine and 11.
The nations first broad voucher program started in 1990 in Milwaukee. Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee school superintendent, is a national advocate of vouchers and charter schools, and has visited North Carolina to promote school choice.
Hes also seen abuses in voucher programs. The Milwaukee program has been rocked by fraud, with private school operators indicted for fraud and money laundering.
Fuller now advocates vetting private schools before theyre allowed to use taxpayer money for tuition, similar to the scrutiny new charter schools receive.
Weve got to look at the lessons learned, said Fuller, head of Marquette Universitys Institute for the Transformation of Learning. When this started, the idea, the focus was really on choice, which I think made sense and still makes sense. As reform has evolved, there is a greater focus on quality.