The ill-conceived voucher program pushed through the General Assembly by Republicans is working just as advocates expected. Yes, they greased the skids for the program by targeting it for lower-income people, dubbing the millions of dollars in public funds that would help them send their kids to private schools as “Opportunity Scholarships.” The name, and the eligibility requirements, conjured a vision of a benevolent Republican Party trying to help the poor.
What the program really does is drain funds from what best serves the poor – free public schools.
Some numbers are in. They show the state has spent $12 million on the “scholarships” this year. Not surprisingly, $11 million of that went to Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools. While there is legitimate concern that public spending on schools with religious affiliations violates the church-state separation principle of American government, the voucher system has passed muster with the courts.
The scholarships provide a maximum of $4,200 per pupil. That, voucher advocates say, shows the program is a bargain because the per-pupil cost of a public education is over $8,000 per student per year.
But Republicans knew full well when they passed the program that $4,200 wouldn’t cover the cost of the state’s most exclusive private schools. Schools like Cary Academy, Durham Academy and Raleigh’s Ravenscroft don’t have any Opportunity Scholarship students. So the students with vouchers are going to lower-cost schools.
Are they good schools? It’s hard to say, since private schools don’t have to disclose much about their operations publicly. They don’t have to give state exams or have state ratings and report cards. Teachers don’t have to be licensed or paid on the state scale. Public schools have all sorts of accountability requirements, including an ill-conceived letter-grade rating system.
State Rep. Skip Stam of Apex, a vociferous backer of vouchers, seems delighted with the lack of regulation, and he and other advocates of private schools want to expand the scholarship program to include more families.
The lack of accountability and the limited number of choices parents face given the size of the scholarships are troubling. But just as troubling is the body blow from the drain of money from public schools that results from the voucher system.
Public education in North Carolina is under attack. That is simply wrong for a system that offers true opportunity with a “scholarship” for all.