Six-year-old King Jones of Charlotte represents the evolution of school choice in North Carolina.
When he went to kindergarten last year, his mother, Adrienne Wesley, chose a charter school, an independent type of public education created to provide alternatives to school districts.
Now she’s hoping to use a state-funded Opportunity Scholarship to send him to private school for first grade. She said that offers his best hope for a college-track education.
Wesley’s was among 5,558 applications across North Carolina – 937 of them from Mecklenburg County – asking the state to cover up to $4,200 in tuition to switch children from public to private schools. Because the $10 million allotted covers only about 2,400 students, the state held a lottery Wednesday.
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Wesley, who does therapy for children with autism and is working on a master’s degree, found out Wednesday evening King made the cut. “It won’t cover it, but it will help,” she said.
The scholarships, also known as vouchers, have been controversial since the N.C. General Assembly approved the plan last year. Opponents say it pulls desperately needed money from public education and turns it over to private schools that aren’t held to the same educational standards.
The lottery was originally slated for February, but a judge issued an injunction in response to lawsuits filed by the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association. That injunction was lifted by the N.C. Supreme Court last month.
Supporters say the scholarships offer hope for families whose children are often trapped in low-performing public schools. And they say it’s a boon to taxpayers because the $4,200 scholarship falls well below the average of $8,500 in public money – including almost $5,400 from the state – spent to educate a student in N.C. public schools.
“Our hope is that it creates another option by which they can be successful before it’s too late,” said Darrell Allison, president of the pro-voucher Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
Going on faith
Religious schools, including Charlotte’s Victory Christian Center School and two Islamic schools in Greensboro and Raleigh, are among the most popular with applicants who listed their intended schools. Religious schools account for about 70 percent of the state’s private schools.
Greensboro Islamic Academy, a K-5 school that had 72 students last year, was listed as the preferred school by 170 scholarship applicants, more than any other in the state.
Victory Christian, a 400-student K-12 school with three campuses in south and northwest Charlotte, was second with 98 applicants. “We believe in having a strong academic program with subjects being taught from a Biblical perspective,” the school’s website says.
Public schools can’t promote religion – for instance, charter schools located in churches must cover up religious symbols – but there’s no such restriction on private schools that take the public money for scholarships. Schools accepting vouchers also don’t have to meet public school regulations or give state exams, though they must give a national exam of the school’s choosing and report the results for scholarship students.
Wesley said a Christian school is her first choice for King, though she’s still school-shopping. She said she initially chose a charter school – she asked that it not be named – because she wanted “something that was not so controlled by the government and politics.” But she said King has learning disabilities, and the school she had chosen wasn’t ready to deal with them.
She hopes to find a private school with smaller classes and a better program for special education.
The State Education Assistance Authority weeded out 1,371 applications that didn’t meet the requirements: Children had to have been in public school last year, and the family income must qualify for federal lunch subsidies – up to $44,123 for a family of four, for instance.
The remaining 4,187 applicants were randomly ranked, and families began getting notice if they won the lottery Wednesday afternoon. But that’s just the start.
The state is still working to identify schools that are willing to do the paperwork and meet the requirements to accept the scholarships, said Elizabeth McDuffie of the SEAA.
And winning an Opportunity Scholarship doesn’t guarantee admission. Many schools have already selected their 2014-15 students and have waiting lists. Likewise, parents who listed a preference on their application aren’t bound by that.
Allison said his group encourages lottery winners to look around for the best school – including those that may offer financial aid to help close the tuition gap. Tuition at some Charlotte schools runs as high as $20,000 a year, though most are lower.
For those who get bad news from the scholarship lottery, there’s still hope. Names will be chosen from the waiting list if some families decline the scholarships or if there’s money left from those who choose schools with tuition less than $4,200.
And Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Huntersville, both spoke at a “Lift the cap” rally sponsored by PEFNC last week. Though no one has yet introduced a bill to expand the program, Allison said it would take $7 million to $8 million more to cover all qualified applicants next year.
“This is about giving parents an option to put their children in a setting that helps ensure that they realize their hopes and dreams,” Tillis said at the rally. He said scholarships offer low-income families “the choice that so many who speak against this have taken: to put their kids in private schools.”
Critics, including organizers of the Forward Together coalition that conducts “Moral Monday” protests, say the vouchers are part of a plan to expand private control over public education and eventually subsidize all private tuition.
Allison said the next few years will show whether low-income students benefit from the scholarships.
“If it’s horrible it will be time for us to pack it up,” he said, “but I think it’s worth a shot.”