School vouchers: Blight or a blessing for Charlotte?

Last fall, Omarion Dawkins was one of 24 first-graders in his class at David Cox Road Elementary. He was excelling academically, moving up from kindergarten to first grade ahead of schedule, but his mother, Starlese Dawkins, wasn’t sure how long that would last.

“I knew for sure that if I wasn’t as active as a parent, he was going to fall through the cracks,” Dawkins said. Without changing schools, she felt she could only work part-time or remain unemployed so her attention could supplement the gaps in her son’s public education. Without financial aid of some kind, a private school was out of reach.

That needed aid came in the form of the Opportunity Scholarship school voucher program — a state-funded program that provides non-public school vouchers worth $4,200 to families who meet a certain income level.

The program, like most voucher programs across the country, has its detractors.

Opponents challenged it in court, claiming that it was unconsitutional to give state money to non-public schools. On Thursday, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the voucher program was constitutional and removed the doubt of applicants like the Dawkins family.

Omarion isn’t the only Charlotte-Mecklenburg student to receive a scholarship.

According to Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina, an advocacy group, 132 students in Mecklenburg County accepted scholarships last year and 402 eligible students applied for this coming year.

The money covered most of the $6,000 tuition at Brisbane Academy Preparatory School in North Charlotte for the Dawkins’ family, getting Omarion in a class of eight, instead of 24.

Each day after school at David Cox, Omarion was more concerned with what color he ended the day on – his teacher’s method of tracking his behavior and keeping order in the classroom – than actual academics. Dawkins worried the method of discipline would alter who he was. But the size of her son’s class worried her most.

“You could just tell from the teacher’s demeanor,” Dawkins said, that her son and others weren’t getting the individual attention they needed to thrive.

Omarion gets that attention at Brisbane, she said. The individualized teaching helps him learn and excel at reading and math. Dawkins added that the staff is responsive to parents. Brisbane’s largest class size is 10 students, executive director Christopher Crooks said.

Smaller class sizes are also a focus of voucher opponents, who, despite the state high court ruling, still see vouchers as unconstitutional. “I’ve had no one show me one speck of data that it’s helping these children academically,” said Yevonne Brannon, Public Schools First North Carolina chairwoman.

“In three or four years we’re going to come back and say this is another failed social experiment. This is a cop out... This is not a real solution for academically struggling children.”

Brannon said money being spent on vouchers should instead be spent on universal pre-kindergarten education, reducing class sizes, hiring teacher’s assistants and working on the more fundamental issues of poverty such as food and shelter.

Brannon is worried the Supreme Court victory will enable the vouchers program to receive more funding. She cited comments by Rep. Paul Stam, who wants to expand the voucher program from $10.8 million to $40 million. Both legislative chambers want to raise funding for the current fiscal year to $17.6 million, but the state budget hasn’t been approved.

Darrell Allison, president of the parents advocacy group, said vouchers aren’t public funds subsidizing private education. Rather, they give low-income taxpayers an option they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Allison said he supports public schools and that the argument that vouchers threaten them isn’t valid, adding that vouchers are just another choice and opponents haven’t come up with a concrete alternative.

“What they’re going to do with $11 million is what they’ve been doing for decades, pour it into a bureaucracy and we’ll continue to have the results that we’ve always had with low-income students. The status quo is simply unacceptable.”

For Dawkins, vouchers might only be a temporary solution.

She’s working part-time and it could be full-time soon, meaning that the family may no longer qualify in a year or two.

But that doesn’t mean Omarion is going back to public school. She said she’s already started putting money aside to keep him at Brisbane. “Money won’t be a factor. I’ve seen with my own eyes. This is the best experience for Omarion. I don’t want to disappoint him.”

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