12:44 pm
Mon October 7, 2013

New School Vouchers Stir Controversy

Rita Haire is a former principal and now director of advancement at the private, faith-based High Point Christian Academy. It's a school that has more than 500 students, but Haire says that the sagging economy and trends in charter schools and home schooling have chipped away at enrollment over the last few years.

Joy Barrett, a fifth grade teacher at High Point Christian Academy, leads a science class at the faith-based private school.
Credit Photo by Paul Garber/WFDD

She's hoping to get a boost from a new program approved this year by the state legislature, which approved  $10 million for what they call "opportunity scholarships."

More commonly known as vouchers, the program will provide taxpayer money for low-income families to pull a child from public school and place them in a private school. It’s estimated that more than 2,000 students will benefit from the vouchers, but Haire said it's hard to predict what it effect it will have on the school. 

 "North Carolina has never had legislation like this, so it's new to all of us," she said. "We certainly hope families will find out about opportunity scholarships and choose us - apply at High Point Christian."

The voucher program has sparked controversy. Supporters say it will provide an educational alternative for low-income families with children in poorly performing schools. Public education advocates argue that the program takes money away from cash-strapped schools, particularly when cuts are being made to other parts of the state school budget that for example reduces the number of teacher aids and bonus pay for teachers with advanced degrees. State School Superintendent June Atkinson is among those who worry that the cost for the program comes at the expense of public schools.

"The money funding the vouchers and the money funding public schools all come from the same pot of money - taxpayers' dollars," Atkinson said. "And you can start a spiral downward of  our public schools by squeezing them so tightly that they cannot provide that quality education that is in the best interest and opportunity for North Carolinians."

Voucher applications will begin in February. There are about 700 private schools in North Carolina. The vouchers would provide up to $4,200 for students who qualify for federal lunch subsidies – currently about $43,000 for a family of four. Also, the student must have been enrolled in a public school the semester before moving to a private school – the vouchers are not for students who are already enrolled in a private school. Applications will open in February for the 2014-15 school year.

The private schools will have to administer standardized tests, but not the same that public schools administer. Critics say that will make it difficult for parents to make comparisons between their current public school and the private schools they are considering.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina and a supporter of the voucher programs, said parents are smart enough to be able to assess how well private schools are educating their students.

"We have nearly 100,000 kids that are already attending and enrolled in private school, and the vast majority of those kids are very wealthy," he said. "Do we really believe that parents that are spending $10-, $15-, $20,000 a year for their children are enrolling their kids into unaccountable schools that you really don't know what you're getting."

Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said even if accountability was not an issue, he would still oppose the voucher program. Jewell said it marks a dangerous precedent of diverting public education money to private schools.

He said the association plans to sue to stop the program before its planned launch in the spring, arguing among other things that the state is violating separation of church and state rules by providing public money to faith-based schools like High Point Christian Academy.

"North Carolina is one of the few constitutions that states that every child must be guaranteed to a free, basic public education," he said. "For the first time ever we're transitioning into using public dollars to go into private education. We've always felt that private schools have a place in society, but not with the use of public dollars."

Haire sees the vouchers as another way to expand opportunities for students and families in North Carolina.

"Working in a private, Christian school, we have to compete for the students that we get. It's part of free market," Haire said. "We have to be competitive. We have to have a strong program. We have to keep our rates reasonable. And yet I'm happy to have all that. I think that's what makes us strong. I think that is what makes our community and our society strong."

After the first year, the program is set to expand from $10 million to $40 million and serve about 9,000 students. Tomorrow we’ll hear from WFDD’s Keri Brown about the growth of charter schools in the state.



Education leaders discuss the potential benefits and pitfalls of the "opportunity scholarships," commonly known as vouchers.