North Carolina's big school voucher problem

A state education program's accountability called into question

Published December 26, 2017 4:58AM (EST)

 (Getty Stock/shironosov)
(Getty Stock/shironosov)

This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

ya-embed-logoIn July of 2013, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed a state budget that included school choice vouchers for students and implemented a new program called the Opportunity Scholarship Program. At the time, North Carolina was the tenth state to implement a program that has now grown to 13 states and the District of Columbia.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program allows students in underserved public schools the chance to attend a private institution and receive an education with a grant of up to $4,200 a year, which is funded through tax-payer dollars. Kindergarten through twelfth grade students who come from a low-income, military or foster home family qualify for the scholarship.

At its conception, the program was well received. Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said that “Thousands of our neediest students will have access to additional schools that could potentially best meet their needs. This was accomplished, in large part, due to the determination of legislators on both sides of the aisle and their willingness to roll up their sleeves and find a way to get it done. For that, we thank them.

But upon implementation, critics slowly emerged, and many pin-pointed their concerns to religion and its strong ties to the schools receiving these funds. In 2016, 90% of the voucher money went to enrolling students in faith-based schools that were Christian or Islamic rooted. These religious institutions are solely funded through tuition and annual gift-giving fundraisers. However, what many find concerning is the extent to which these private faith-based institutions can discriminate admittance and use their religion to do so.

Wesleyan Christian Academy, a participating private kindergarten through 12th grade education institution in The Opportunity Scholarship Program, is based in High Point, North Carolina. According to their student handbook, they will not admit families that openly participate in "supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual orientation, homosexual activity, or bisexual activity; promoting such practices; or being unable to support the moral principles of the school." They cite Romans 1:18-32 to back up their decision. Wesleyan Christian Academy also affirms that "Every student is expected to attend all chapel services," which are determined at the start of each year and held on a weekly basis. Their dress code bars sixth through 12th grade students from wearing shorts, hats, sundresses and any form of clothing, make-up or body piercing that is "styled after the pop culture."

Fayetteville Christian School, an institution that ranked third in the state for the 2016-2017 academic year in opportunity scholarship money, has received $653,375 from the program since its inception in 2014. They "will not admit families that engage in illicit drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality (LGBT) or other behaviors that Scripture defines as devia[nt]and perverted,” according to the school’s handbook. The school also bars admission to Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, non-Messianic Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.

The Century Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., analyzed The Opportunity Scholarship program and noticed the blatant religious discrimination these private institutions could mandate but also uncovered underlying racial, ethnic and income discrimination many of these schools could discreetly get away with. They noted the excess funds required to enroll high school students in gifted programs, which scholarship funds would more than likely not cover, as the annual tuition fees often exceed the maximum amount of funds offered. They also noted the two major textbooks faith-based schools use — Bob Jones University Press and Pensacola-based A Beka books — citing, "Bob Jones University Press history textbooks have famously taught 'The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well' and that the Klan tried to fight the decline in morality by using the cross, targeting 'bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies.'" 

Proponents of The Opportunity Scholarship Program have held steadfast to their belief that the program gives less fortunate students in underserved communities the opportunity to gain a world class education, while critics cite the discrimination the institutions can practice and the complete lack of accountability the schools have to uphold in educating students. Public schools are required to administer standardized tests to all students to benchmark their progress, while private institutions are only required to administer tests to students who are attending on an Opportunity Scholarship. Public schools give state standardized tests, while private schools give a national standardized test. The discrepancies and lack of consistency with administering two different tests have raised flags, and current North Carolina governor Roy Cooper has been very vocal in his disdain for the program. "I am very concerned and have opposed vouchers because of the lack of accountability," he said earlier this year. "We really don’t know what these schools are doing or how they are performing. Instead, we need to invest in our public schools."

The current budget in place will give $45 million this school year to The Opportunity Scholarship Program, with a proposed plan of adding $10 million annually until the program reaches $145 million by the 2027 through 2028 school year. The North Carolina General Assembly has spearheaded this effort, while Cooper has his sights set on reducing funding — and streamlining it back to public schools.

By Lauryn Higgins

Lauryn Higgins is a native Tar Heel and currently a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she is Salon's Young American journalist for the state of North Carolina. Her hope is to provide an accurate portrait of the state's current affairs with an organic ethos and an on the ground perspective. Her unwavering belief in authentic truth-telling and passion to make news accessible and understandable for everyone, is what drew her to this project, and to the field of journalism. Website: Twitter @laurynhiggins22 Instagram @laurynhiggins

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