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Give low-income students an equal shot at private schools

From N.C. Reps. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford; Ed Hanes, D-Forsyth; Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg and Brian Brown, R-Pitt:

While standing on the stage of the Greensboro War Memorial Auditorium recently, we saw firsthand the demand from thousands of parents, students and community leaders to help low-income and working-class children access the academic help they need.

So when we hear from critics that we should either stop or slow down on our plan to help these families who are hanging in the balance, we immediately thought of the nearly 3,000 people who were before us and the even larger group they represent across our state. Sadly, we have hundreds of thousands of low-income and working-class children who failed state tests last year because a “one size fits all” educational model did not meet their academic needs. This is unacceptable.

Though three of us represent urban districts and the other a rural county, all of us see similar numbers regarding our children’s academic performance. In each of our counties, only about half of poor children passed end-of-grade tests last year compared with over 80 percent of their wealthier peers, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

If each child has a constitutional right to a sound, basic education, then our poorest kids are surely on the short end of the stick. This crisis is no longer something we can simply talk about – something must be done.

That is why we, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, are the primary sponsors of House Bill 944, the Opportunity Scholarship Act. This measure will allow the families of low-income and working-class children to better afford schools that can meet their academic needs. We know that the lower a child is on the socioeconomic scale, the less access they have to vital resources and the more susceptible they are to society’s ills such as incarceration and dropping out of school.

We support House Bill 944 because programs allowing private school choice for low-income and working-class children have proven successful. Independent studies show that Florida’s program has led to increased test scores for scholarship recipients and public school students while saving taxpayers more than $98 million since 2001.

We know that House Bill 944 is still a work in progress, but we are committed to ensuring that we have good accountability standards: academic progress of scholarship students will be reported annually and participating private schools will have mandated financial audits based upon the amount of scholarship funding they receive. Most importantly, we seek to empower parents to be the ultimate authority on accountability when it comes to their children’s education.

At the end of the day, we want all children to have the best resources to succeed, and that’s the true bipartisan spirit behind House Bill 944. We simply want to provide low-income parents an option with the hope of finding a better educational environment that can best meet their child’s academic needs.

Our ears are not deaf to the challenges faced by our traditional public schools and we will never relent in working to find ways to help public schools. However, as legislators, we have a responsibility to uphold our state’s constitutional promise to provide a quality education to all our students.

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