In the March 3 Point of View “A scary program set for expansion,” Allison Mahaley, president of the Orange Durham Chapter of Americans United, called for an end to our state’s “frightening school voucher program.”
What do low-income and working-class parents in North Carolina, who seek these state-funded private school scholarships for their children, have to say? Does the program induce fear or draw forth freedom?
Freedom, in this context, means being empowered to choose the school that best meets the needs of your child, even if you are poor.
By significant margins, children from low-income families populate most of the lowest-performing public schools in our state. State data show only 42 percent of North Carolina’s economically disadvantaged students scored proficient on end-of-grade exams. Is it any surprise that their parents are embracing educational freedom in a resounding way?
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During the Opportunity Scholarship Program’s 2016-17 priority application cycle, families submitted a remarkable 5,615 new applications in just one month! Renewals from the more than 2,500 current recipients will push these numbers higher still. An estimated 6,200 scholarships are available for 2016-17.
Such demand stands in stark contrast to calls from Americans United to shut down the program. Low-income families are taxpayers, too. Don’t they have the full right of citizenship, along with affluent families in our state?
Americans United also recycled the argument about religious-based schools. Yet a parent’s right to use public dollars for religious education was settled more than a decade ago. In its decision upholding the constitutionality of Cleveland’s scholarship program, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that school choice programs are “neutral in respect to religion (since they) provide assistance to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their genuine and independent private choice.”
Similarly, in July 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the Opportunity Scholarship Program was constitutional. Why, then, would we want to stop a program that is both legal and embraced by thousands of parents desperate for something different for their children?
Private and religious-based schools that participate in the program are required to test scholarship students each year; test scores and graduation rates must be reported to the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. Schools that enroll a high number of scholarship students must also contract with an outside accountant for a financial review.
Americans United argued that programs like the opportunity scholarship “rob” our public schools. But the school system was established to serve and educate the child, not the other way around. Our state has a constitutional obligation to educate every child, and when we find tens of thousands of children falling through the cracks for decades, compassion and morality shout out to the rest of us to act. Through the Opportunity Scholarship Program, our state has begun to do just that.
President, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina
The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the Point of View.