Barry Saunders

NC private school voucher program will hurt public schools

When all of those students who are receiving taxpayer money to go to private schools settle in at their desks, the first history lesson introduced should be the one about the Trojan Horse.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes Homeboy version: The Greeks, you see, wanted to get inside the impenetrable walls of Troy. Ten years of military assaults didn’t accomplish that, so they decided to use trickery.

“Ok, you mean old Trojans. We give up,” they yelled over the walls. “Y’all are just too strong for us. We’re fixin’ to split, but we’re leaving you a lovely parting gift for being such worthy adversaries. Toodle-oooooo.”

The gift was a massive wooden horse left outside the city’s gates. Unable to resist a gift – who is? – residents pulled the horse into the city and went to bed. That night, Greek soldiers clambered from inside the horse, opened gates and let in their homies.

Game, set, match. They laid waste to Troy.

The recent battle over school vouchers bears similarities to the Trojan Horse trickery: Republican legislators were making insufficient headway in their years-long war on public education, so they decried the presumably substandard public school education being provided to poor, minority kids. “We’ve got a gift for you,” they told poor residents. “Vouchers.”

Again, who can reject a gift? Their presumed concern for the poor kids persuaded many parents to support pulling money from public schools and providing Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools.

As soon as the N.C. Supreme Court ruled last month that vouchers were constitutional, the legislators dismounted the horse of concern for the poor and began talking about raising the income threshold so parents who aren’t poor can benefit.

Think about it: The first student hasn’t stared blankly at a blackboard or made up a lame excuse for not having his homework since the court’s ruling last month, yet House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam is already pushing to expand the program – from $11 million to $40 million – and raise the income guidelines.

“The income limits are negotiable,” Stam said in subsequent interviews. “I’d personally like to raise it well above” next year’s limit of $59,668 for a family of four. Last year’s limit was $43,000.

Am I the only one who thinks some Republicans won’t be satisfied until public education goes the way of McGuffey Readers, abacuses and 8mm film projectors?

No. N.C. Association of Educators President Rodney Ellis – the father of two public school graduates and two current public school students and who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program – thinks so, too. “When you look at some of the General Assembly’s actions, the question becomes ‘What is the real intent? How do they’” – public schools – “‘play into the future of this state?’

“Several things are going to happen that will have a dramatic impact on public schools” because of the court’s ruling, he said. “With this opportunity scholarship, you’re giving students a chance to go to private school using taxpayer money. I can’t afford to send my own kids to private school, and it bothers me that my tax dollars are being spent to send others’ kids to private schools. Because they’re able to handpick who gets these scholarships,” he said, “you’re going to find that public schools will be less able to provide a quality education than they have in the past.”


“Because you’re going to be losing funds and you’re going to be losing a great many of the students who are upper middle-class. Those are the students in our classroom who, I believe, receive the most home support,” he said and thus perform best academically.

“I don’t think,” he said, “it’s going to be good for public schools.”

Who does?

If the General Assembly thinks public schools are deficient and failing too many students, can they also think that pulling out even more money from them will improve their performance?

The moral of the Trojan Horse story is “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” The moral of the private school vouchers program is “beware of legislators bearing a heretofore unexpressed concern for educating the poor.”