A Guilford County nonprofit received $720,000 in the new state budget to bring an interactive presentation on positive behaviors to four school districts. The program is drawing criticism from the conservative John Locke Foundation, which says there’s no indication the program has proven its success.
The nonprofit slated to receive the funding is The Children and Parent Resource Group Inc., which contracts with an international company to offer “life-changing experiences.” The nonprofit’s leader, Tamika Bain, did not respond to multiple phone and email inquiries about the program, but the website describes it as “innovative 90-minute scientifically grounded experiences that transform school auditoriums into interactive and technologically sophisticated cinemas to deliver a powerful 3-D narrative, video testimonials, and an audience interactive component through hand-held voting devices.”
According to the budget provision, the program addresses “dangerous life and community threatening activities that negatively impact teenagers, including alcohol and other drugs, dangerous driving, violence and bullying.”
The funding appeared in the original Senate budget, and while the House didn’t include it, it was in the final compromise budget. Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican, proposed the funding along with Sen. Louis Pate, a Wayne County Republican.
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Lee said the funding was first proposed in a standalone appropriations bill filed in both the House and Senate in March. Senate Bill 423 called for the program to receive a total of $616,000 for three school districts – less than the $720,000 for four counties in the budget allocation. The funding works out to about $6 per student.
“We were exposed to it early in the session when a gentleman from Israel asked to show us a program he’s done in other countries and was now doing it in the U.S.,” Lee said. “It’s really grounded in research-based practices, and they’ve partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There are metrics for success. That was the difference for me personally.”
The Israeli company, which is affiliated with the Guilford County nonprofit, hired a team of three North Carolina lobbyists in January. One of them, Harry Kaplan of McGuire Woods, called the program “one of the more interesting things I’ve ever been associated with.”
“Their goal is to spread this program around the world and they’ve been working on it around the world,” he said. The company has already worked with the Governor’s Highway Safety Program on driver education efforts in Pitt County, Kaplan added.
The grant, paid to the nonprofit over two years, will be administered by the Department of Public Instruction. Spokesman Drew Elliot said the agency did not request the funding. “To our knowledge, this program is not duplicative to any currently run by DPI,” he said in an email. Two of the school districts that will host the program, Wayne County and Pitt County, say they didn’t request it either.
“Our school board and our school administration did not request funding for this program specifically, but welcomes any support to help tackle issues such as substance abuse, distracted driving, violence and bullying,” Pitt County Schools spokesman Travis Lewis said in an email.
Wayne County Schools spokesman Ken Derksen said his district has hosted similar assemblies in the past but doesn’t know how Life Changing Experiences will compare to other offerings. “WCPS has not received any information why it was selected to receive the LCE program,” Derksen said in an email, but that the district “is looking forward to being able to offer this character education program to our students.”
Lee said the districts were selected after “several different House and Senate members talked to their local folks and found interest.”
Mitchell County and Forsyth County are the other two districts hosting the program, which will be for students in grades six through 11.
DPI and The Children and Parent Resource Group Inc. are required in the budget law to file reports in 2018 and 2019 to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee and the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division, including “an accounting of expenditures and student outcome data related to the operation of the project.”
“I’m a big fan of pilot programs to see if something works before you start pushing dollars into it,” Lee said.
According to its website, the nonprofit – which uses the acronym CPR – has been active since 2006. It has partnered with the Life Changing Experiences company and its founder, Ori Yardeni, since 2012 to offer the program “at no cost to students and educators.”
The program titles include “Addicted 2 Life: Alcohol and Other Drugs” and “Living Together: Bully and Aggression.”
Joe Coletti of the John Locke Foundation said the budget provision breaks with the legislature’s history of leaving such funding decisions up to the school districts.
“In most areas, the legislature has set an expectation for outcomes and left schools to determine how best to accomplish their goals,” Coletti said in an email. “This earmark goes against that pattern. It provides $720,000 over two years to a single vendor who will show 3-D movies on a range of topics at perhaps 58 middle and high schools in four widely divergent school districts across the state with no indication of the expected or desired outcomes.”
Coletti suggests that the legislators should have instead encouraged a private foundation to cover initial funding and then set up a “pay for success” contract.
“Life Changing Experiences, on its website, only claims to have changed what teens say they will do when confronted with a situation, not that they actually change their behavior,” he said.
The website says that after the program, “30 percent of our students express a willingness to make behavioral changes in crucial areas.”
But Lee says the nonprofit will measure whether the program is working. “It’s not just a one-day program, the program utilizes applications on cellphones and in other devices so that the program moves beyond the one-day experience,” he said.
Kaplan said the program has already proved successful in other places, and a driver education program designed by Yardeni is required of all Israeli drivers. “As they’re going through the program, there’s research done on these kids surveys without knowing they’re being surveyed. The objective is to get objective answers.”
But Coletti hopes the program won’t continue. “At this point we can only hope DPI and the school districts will struggle to spend the funds, and the General Assembly sees fit to reclaim any unspent funds and not appropriate any more,” he said.