The Wake County Superior Court on Monday allowed the constitutional challenge to the new school voucher program to go forward. On Friday, a Superior Court judge granted opponents’ request to suspend the program. As the case progresses, the courts will consider whether spending taxpayer money on school vouchers violates the “public purpose” clause of the N.C. Constitution, which says, in essence, that the legislature may collect and appropriate tax money for public purposes only.
A public purpose is one that benefits the public as a whole, rather than specific individuals or interests. Knowing something about the private schools that would receive taxpayer money under the voucher program should be an important part of the court’s decision-making process.
A new report on private schools in North Carolina finds that most of the schools available to voucher recipients are very small, unaccredited religious schools with uncertified teachers, nonstandard curricula and no public accountability. The report, “Characteristics of North Carolina Private Schools,” provides insights into the schools that may be accepting the vouchers.
The report was issued by the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School, based on data from the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education and an extensive phone survey of those schools.
Among the key findings of the report:
• A total of 696 private schools are registered with the State Division of Non-Public Education. Of those, 70 percent are religious and 30 percent are independent.
• A quarter of the private schools have enrollments of fewer than 20 students; nearly another quarter have enrollments of fewer than 50 students.
• North Carolina’s private schools operate throughout the state, though there are nine counties with no private schools and 17 counties with just one private school. In those 17 counties, the single private school is religious.
• The average tuition of private day schools in North Carolina is $6,690.
• Only 35 percent of schools charge tuition that could be fully paid by a voucher (i.e., $4,200 per year or less). Of those schools, more than 90 percent are religious schools. At the middle and high school level, about 95 percent are religious schools.
• About 70 percent of the schools have no accreditation from any type of independent agency.
• Only 30 percent of the private schools in North Carolina employ only certified teachers. Twenty percent of schools have no certified teachers; another 25 percent have fewer than half certified teachers.
• Only 25 percent of the private schools follow the North Carolina curriculum standards.
• About 70 percent of the private schools are racially segregated, meaning that more than 80 percent of the students are of one race. A third of the private schools reported that their enrollment is more than 90 percent of one race. Twenty-nine percent are more than 90 percent white; 4 percent are more than 90 percent black.
The voucher program allows certain families to get a stipend from the government of up to $4,200 per year to apply to private school tuition. In the first year, a maximum of 2,380 children will be able to get vouchers, based on a budget of $10 million. More will be eligible if the program is ultimately found constitutional and the General Assembly appropriates more money. Also in the first year, the children must be from families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunches in public school. The income limit goes up in the second year, if the program gets past the constitutional challenge – and could continue to go up.
The voucher can be offered to any “nonpublic school” in North Carolina. North Carolina has no approval process for nonpublic schools and does not require any type of accreditation or educational standards for the schools. The state does not interfere with the selection of curriculum or teachers. Although nonpublic schools must administer annual testing and make the results known to the parents, they are not required to make their test results public.
Voucher supporters say the program provides a choice for families to escape low-performing public schools and find the “best school” for their children. As can be seen from the findings about private schools in North Carolina, the voucher recipients – who need not show that the public schools they are leaving are low-performing or that their children are poorly served there – will nearly all be choosing very small, unaccredited religious schools with uncertified teachers and a nonstandard curriculum. These “choice” schools will remain, as they are now, unaccountable to the public.
Providing a free public education to the children of this state undoubtedly meets the “public purpose” requirement of our constitution. But providing a taxpayer-funded subsidy to a group of children whose parents would prefer to send them to religious school does not. While parents are, and should be, free to send their children to the school of their choice, the public purpose requirement of our constitution does not allow the taxpayers to pay for that choice.
Jane R. Wettach is a clinical professor of Law at Duke University School of Law and director of the Children’s Law Clinic.