Education

Public school supporters say NC school choice programs need more accountability

Nariah Hunter (center right), 7, dances with classmates as they sing in music class on March 15, 2016. North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarship program is making it possible for Janet Nunn's 7-year-old granddaughter, Nariah Hunter, to attend Victory Christian Center School.
Nariah Hunter (center right), 7, dances with classmates as they sing in music class on March 15, 2016. North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarship program is making it possible for Janet Nunn's 7-year-old granddaughter, Nariah Hunter, to attend Victory Christian Center School. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

As school choice supporters celebrate their success in North Carolina, supporters of traditional public schools say state leaders should demand more information about how taxpayer money is being used in charter schools and private schools.

Increasing transparency and accountability for school choice programs was one of the top 10 education issues for 2018 on a list released Wednesday by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocate for better schools and more public funding for education. With the state planning to spend $1 billion over a 10-year period on vouchers for children to attend private schools, forum leaders say those schools should be held to the same standards as public schools.

“Private school voucher opponents recognize those programs are not likely going to go away even if they believe strongly that they take away much needed resources from our public schools that educate the vast majority of students,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the forum. “We believe all of these school choice programs need oversight and accountability.”

The release of the list came a day after school choice supporters held a rally Tuesday in Raleigh to press state lawmakers to continue expanding opportunities for families to attend options other than traditional public schools. Education policy changes made this decade by state lawmakers have helped create a trend in which enrollment in traditional public schools has declined while more students are enrolling in charter schools, private schools and homeschools.

“I believe the Public School Forum does good work in public schools, but we have groups in the state that were vehemently against eliminating the cap on charter schools and vehemently against any notion of private school vouchers in our state with all kinds of arguments opposed to such,” Darrell Allison, president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in an interview.

“Now that we have three private school programs and elimination of the cap on charter schools, I’m not surprised that we have critics coming up with new arguments against those programs.”

North Carolina has seen some major education changes since Republicans took control of the state legislature after the 2010 election.

State lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools, which are public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations traditional public schools must follow. There are 173 charter schools now open in the state.

Legislators also instituted voucher programs to help families attend private schools. Applications will become available next week for a new state program that allows families of disabled students attending private schools to get a debit card to cover up to $9,000 a year in K-12 expenses.

Poston argued that the programs, particularly for private schools, lack enough state oversight.

He cited the case of an employee at Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville who pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $388,000 from state taxpayers. Trinity Christian has received more than $1.7 million in voucher money, called Opportunity Scholarships. The teacher served his jail time on the weekends and remains the school’s basketball coach.

“Can you imagine the outcry if a public school tried something like that?” Poston told the crowd of about 200 people at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh on Wednesday.

But Allison said that problems can be found with employees in all schools, not just private schools.

“We’re not perfect,” he said. “I will never say that there won’t be additional problems. We try to have solutions in place to minimize the problems.”

The forum’s report says only 10 of the 358 private schools met the threshold of receiving $300,000 a year to file an annual financial review to the state. The forum says all schools that get voucher money should have to file financial compliance forms to the state.

Poston also complained that private education operators receiving public money are held to a lower standard of accountability than public schools. The report says private schools receiving taxpayer money don’t have to be accredited, have certified teachers or meet curriculum standards.

“Legislators seem to be generally OK micromanaging school superintendents,” Poston told the crowd. “But when it comes to school choice options like private school vouchers, we should at least expect the same transparency and standards that we hold our public schools to.”

Allison said it’s wrong to say that the private schools aren’t being held accountable. In addition to the financial review for schools that receive at least $300,000, he said schools that have at least 25 voucher students will be required to report the test results of those children.

Also unlike the public schools, Allison said voucher students are taking standardized tests that show how they’re doing compared with peers around the country.

“I’m not saying that the Opportunity Scholarship program is perfect, but it’s making a world of difference and good for families that were trapped and chained at schools that were not working for them,” he said.

Increased accountability for school choice programs was the No. 3 issue for the forum.

The top issue was fixing the K-3 “class size crisis” which has school districts worried about how they can meet the state mandate for smaller class sizes this fall. Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and House education leader, reiterated at the meeting his belief that a fix is on the way. But he couldn’t say exactly when it would occur.

Some of the other items on the list were:

▪ Adequately and equitably invest in education, including school buildings;

▪ Recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers and principals;

▪ Fix the “faulty” A-F school grading system.

To view the full list, click here.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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