Point of view

NC families speak loudly with their high demand for vouchers

May 12, 2014 

When thinking about the legislatively passed but court suspended Opportunity Scholarship Program, a biblical passage comes to mind.

It relates to a prophet who strains to hear the voice of God. After strong winds, earthquakes and fire, God’s voice could not be heard. But then a whisper came, and God was heard.

From the beginning of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, there have been strong winds and even rhetorical fire coming from both sides. Well-meaning, persistent advocates have battled over the passage and constitutionality of the program, yet the voice of thousands of parents from across the state had not been heard. Until now.

Here’s what parents from low-income communities have said through their actions during the application process of the Opportunity Scholarship Program:

• Low-income parents are desperate for an option other than the status quo: At the time the trial court issued an injunction temporarily halting the program, over 4,500 official student applications had flooded the state agency responsible for administering the program. When the application period was prematurely stopped, in just 25 days, over 5,500 parents had applied, more than double the allotted space of 2,400 student seats for the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

• Low-income, mostly minority families had the highest demand: Of the more than 5,500 student applications, over 75 percent came from African-American and Latino/Hispanic low-income households. With only 25 percent of minority students in our traditional public schools being proficient statewide, should we really be surprised that parents are demanding an alternative?

• Low-income parents from across the state made national history: Parents in 95 of North Carolina’s 100 counties had applied for a child to receive a scholarship. Moreover, North Carolina became the first state in our nation to exceed the application cap in its inaugural year of offering private school scholarships, and even more parents would have applied had the program not been shut down a week before the official deadline.

Listen to the true voices of the Opportunity Scholarship Program: Wanda Medina is a parent from Raleigh and the mother of an 11 year-old boy in public school. She says, “Right now, I see that I have no choices for my son. All families should have the right to provide their children with a good education. The Opportunity Scholarship would provide him with the chance to go beyond what he thinks he is capable of.”

Consider Denille Amendola, a mother of two school-aged children in Durham. Her greatest concern is that her children don’t have teachers who provide them with individualized attention. But the Opportunity Scholarship would have changed that. “This scholarship can completely change my child’s life,” she says. “It can allow them to accomplish that dream or hope that they’ve always wanted to come true.”

Would there be other reasons for why these parents from low-income communities sought the Opportunity Scholarship Program? Sadly, yes, as approximately 3 out of 10 low-income students are proficient in reading and math in the Wake County Public School system and just over 2 out of 10 low-income students are proficient in the Durham County Public School System.

The unfortunate reality, for parents like Medina and Amendola and the thousands more like them, is that failure is more tangible than success for their children in these underperforming schools. That is why the recent lower court’s rationale for allowing an injunction was both puzzling and hurtful, when stating the harm suffered by low-income families is “speculative” if denied this opportunity. The harm in requiring a child to remain in underperforming schools like these is not speculative. It’s downright irreparable!

As litigation over the program now heads to the N.C. Supreme Court, we must no longer just pause and listen to the loud voices of advocates, policymakers and lawyers. We must not underestimate the demonstrable actions of the thousands of low-income parents who captured national attention in applying for this program. Their voices must no longer be ignored in determining how we must better educate their children. They have spoken. Listen.

Darrell Allison is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

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