When Janet Nunn enrolled her 7-year-old granddaughter in Charlotte’s Victory Christian Center School, she joined an emerging trend in North Carolina: Families using public money to send children to private religious schools.
This year, the state has spent $12 million on Opportunity Scholarships to help families of modest means move their children from public to private schools. About $11 million went to Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools, with about $800,000 going to secular schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long since signed off on using tax money for religious schools. Proponents of North Carolina’s program say it’s a bargain for taxpayers, whether parents choose a church school or a secular one. The scholarships provide a maximum of $4,200 per pupil, compared with a per-pupil cost of almost $8,800 for public schools.
“The government saves, the parents are happier, the children are being educated,” said state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake.
Critics say it’s bad policy to divert millions from public education to send children to schools that can pick and choose students, face little public accountability and may be teaching the Bible or the Quran along with reading and math. And some question the quality families can get for $4,200 a year.
“The old saying goes, you get what you pay for. I believe that’s going to be the case,” said Bill Anderson, an administrator in the UNC Charlotte College of Education and longtime public education advocate. “Our country was founded on the separation of church and state. If parents want to send their children to these kind of schools they have every right to, but I don’t think the taxpayers should be paying for it.”
Nunn, who calls herself spiritual but not a churchgoer, says her goal was to make 7-year-old Nariah Hunter a better reader. Nariah is among 57 students getting state scholarships to attend the south Charlotte school, which espouses a belief that “education in America should be based upon Biblical principles and the Christian spirit.”
Nunn says she’s delighted that Nariah, who attended a Charlotte-Mecklenburg magnet school for two years, is learning Christian virtues. But she talks more about how well her granddaughter can read.
“Since we’ve been here: Straight-A student, reading well, comprehending,” said Nunn, who is 48 and works with adults who have disabilities. “They have brought her a very long way.”
After a bumpy three-year start that included legal battles and a budget delay, the Opportunity Scholarship program is revving up for a year that’s expected to reach new highs for spending and participation.
This year, almost one-third of the program’s $17.6 million budget was unspent as of April 1. The money could have covered about 4,100 students, but only 3,460 applied, qualified and followed through.
That’s bound to change in 2016-17: With almost $25 million available, about 6,000 can get scholarships. The state expects to have a waiting list after serving returning students and almost 4,200 eligible new applicants who signed up in February.
The program provides aid for parents who meet income guidelines to switch their children from public to private schools or to start them in private kindergarten/first-grade classes. Students who are already in private school can’t get a scholarship, but once a student gets the aid and enrolls, it’s renewed every year as long as he or she stays in a North Carolina private school and meets income standards.
The voucher program is part of a national push for parent choice that includes a surge in charter schools in North Carolina. Those schools, which rely on state, county and federal money, face most of the same requirements as traditional public schools. They can’t turn students away, for instance, and they must make financial and academic data public.
Opportunity Scholarships come with far fewer strings. Private schools accepting the public money can’t discriminate based on race or national origin, but they can refuse students who don’t meet academic, behavioral or religious requirements.
Bargain or bad deal?
Proponents say the program is a boon to all, especially in populous counties like Mecklenburg and Wake, where school districts are spending public money to cope with growth and private alternatives are plentiful.
If a recipient chooses a private school that costs more than $4,200 a year, the rest must come from the family, private assistance or both.
Those students are diverted from public education, where per-pupil spending averaged $8,784 last year. That included $5,638 in state money, plus federal and county contributions (in Mecklenburg, local money averaged $2,326 per student).
Academic quality in private schools that take scholarships is hard to measure. Those schools aren’t required to give state exams, disclose data to the public or face the state ratings and report cards that are required for district and charter schools.
Religious schools may include worship, prayer and religious instruction as part of the school day.
The amount of time spent on religious activities varies by school and even by grade level, says Mark Helmer, president of the Greater Charlotte Association of Christian Schools and principal of the lower school at Covenant Day School in Matthews. He and representatives of two other religious schools said the bulk of school time is spent on academics – but those lessons may have religious themes, too.
“We really emphasize what we would call teaching from a Biblical world view,” Helmer said. For instance, he said, classes might discuss how the themes of a novel relate to the Bible or how God’s creation is reflected in the order of mathematics.
In Covenant’s science classes, lessons about the origin of Earth start with the premise “In the beginning God created ...” then explore a range of interpretations, including evolution, said Head of School Mark Davis.
Why religious schools?
Religious schools account for 70 percent of North Carolina’s private-school enrollment. But an Observer analysis of Opportunity Scholarship reports shows 93 percent of the money going to religious schools.
The reason for the preponderance of religious schools is unclear, though many believe it’s linked to cost and opportunity.
In cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, the most prestigious secular schools cost about $20,000 a year and are highly selective, with testing to determine which preschoolers will make the cut. Schools like Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Latin and Providence Day don’t have any scholarship recipients.
Country Day had a few scholarship recipients apply but they didn’t meet the criteria, said admission director Nancy Ehringhaus. She said she school is eager to recruit qualified students from low-income homes, and the state scholarship program might encourage future applicants who would be accepted.
All the big recipients of Opportunity Scholarships are religious schools, and most charge well under $10,000 a year. For instance, tuition at Tabernacle Christian School of Monroe, which has 71 public scholarship students, is $3,700 to $4,000 a year, which means the grant covers the full bill.
Two of the 10 largest recipients are Islamic schools. The Greensboro Islamic Academy holds the No. 2 spot, with 90 students receiving a total of $373,800.
Principal Widad Mohamed says the scholarship program opened the door to low-income Muslim families who couldn’t afford the full cost. Tuition for the preK-8 school, housed in trailers beside the Islamic Center of Greensboro, is $450 a month, or $4,500 a year. The school has 147 students, which means more than half are covered mostly by state money.
While prayer and religious study make up part of the day, most of the time is focused on academic classes that use the same curriculum as public schools, Mohamed said. And she said the school has no problem with secular support for a religious program.
“All the families, they pay tax. I think it’s fair to take some of this,” she said. “The parents are happy. It’s a good option.”
Schools can skip extras
Stam says church schools can often cut costs because they get free use of Sunday school classrooms. And any private school can choose to skip extras such as cafeterias or sports facilities, he noted.
But the biggest variable is faculty: Private school teachers don’t have to be licensed or paid on the state scale. “They can pay teachers whatever they want,” Stam said. “They can pay high, they can pay low.”
At Brisbane in north Charlotte, 10 of 50 students this year get state aid. Families still must pay $1,000 to $2,000 a year, said founding director Geri Crooks, but that’s manageable for most.
“It’s just been an answer to prayer,” said Crooks, who founded the school 24 years ago to create a small setting where no bullying would take place. “We help (families) where we can, but we can’t operate for free.”
Nunn said she has admired Victory Christian Center School, which is near her home, since she moved to Charlotte in 2011. But she assumed private school was out of reach.
After two years in a CMS magnet, Nunn says her granddaughter wasn’t reading well enough. She wanted Nariah to repeat first grade but the school disagreed. Last year she heard about the Opportunity Scholarships and switched Nariah to Victory, where she is in first grade again.
Nariah’s class has 11 students, a teacher and an assistant, compared with a 19-student class in public school, Nunn said. The first-graders get phonics-heavy reading instruction and learn to identify parts of a sentence, such as verbs, subject nouns, adverbs and adjectives. In math, they’re learning about fractions and two- and three-dimensional shapes. She’s learning to read music and play the recorder, and Nunn says her share of tuition is small enough that she can afford after-school piano lessons.
Bible stories and Christian songs are a big part of each day, and Nunn is happy with that. She says Nariah recently asked to go to a hospital to pray for sick children: “They’re teaching her to be concerned about others and she’s only 7.”
Where’s the data?
Keith Poston, president of the Raleigh-based Public School Forum of North Carolina, says enthusiasm from parents isn’t enough to justify shifting millions of dollars from public education.
“We believe our teachers are underpaid and our schools are underresourced,” Poston said. He noted that lawmakers have piled on accountability for public schools, ranging from school letter grades based on test scores to lists of low-performing schools expected to make changes. State report cards put a wealth of data about public schools, including charters, in easy reach of anyone with a computer.
Private schools have little obligation for public disclosure. Schools that get at least $300,000 in Opportunity Scholarships have to file a financial report with the state, a mark only two schools have hit this year. Those with more than 25 scholarship students must give the state a report on how those students performed, on average, on the school’s chosen exam. Those results won’t be posted but will be released to anyone who makes a public records request, said Kathryn Marker, the administrator of the program.
“I would say ‘inconsistent’ would be a charitable way to describe that,” Poston said. “I know that there are some very good schools that are participating, but how many are not doing a good job and how many kids are being shortchanged?”
The scholarship law requires the state to hire an independent research group to study “learning gains and losses” of recipients and the “competitive effect on public school performance” in 2017-18. The selection process will start this summer, Marker said, but it’s far from clear how those results will be gauged.
State Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, says he’s eager to learn more about the quality of education in state-funded private schools.
As charter schools have proliferated in Charlotte, some have been forced to close because of academic and financial problems.
“I think we’ve got to keep an eye on things, similar to what goes on with charters,” said Bryan, a sponsor of the scholarship bill.
Hope from Charlotte?
Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, points to a Charlotte-based study as evidence that private-school scholarships bring academic benefits.
About a year ago, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute looked at high school results for students who had gotten K-8 tuition assistance through the private Children’s Scholarship Fund. That fund, part of a national effort to help low-income kids attend private schools, is not affiliated with the state’s Opportunity Scholarships.
The study compared academics, attendance and behavior for 464 Charlotte scholarship recipients who returned to CMS for high school with a comparison group of 2,783 CMS students who didn’t participate. The students who got help going to private school outperformed the CMS students on every measure, by “clear and significant” margins.
The report by research specialist Diane Gavarkavich notes that the finding “does not mean that participation in (the scholarship program) caused those differences. Other factors, such as parent participation in education, may have been the cause of the differences in outcomes.”
In a recent interview, Gavarkavich said there are also significant differences between Opportunity Scholarships and the Children’s Scholarship Fund. Measuring the effect on children who scatter to private schools all over North Carolina, with no standard data collection, will be tough, she said: “It’s really hard to do studies on this.”
With or without data, the program is expected to grow.
This year, for the first time, parents will have scholarship information in hand as they make decisions about 2016-17. And advocates hope the end of the court battle will encourage more schools to participate.
Stam said lawmakers don’t plan major changes to the program in this year’s short session. But in 2017, when another two-year budget is crafted, spending could rise, especially if this year’s demand is strong.
“If there are a couple thousand more that want to get in,” he said, “then bless their hearts.”
Among the schools that received the largest amount of Opportunity Scholarship money for 2015-16 as of April 1. Each student can receive a maximum of $4,200.
1. Trinity Christian School
2. Greensboro Islamic Academy
3. Word of God Christian Academy
8. Victory Christian Center School
9. Al-Iman School
Schools that received the largest amount of Opportunity Scholarship money for 2015-16 as of April 1. Each student can receive a maximum of $4,200.
1. Trinity Christian School
2. Greensboro Islamic Academy
3. Word of God Christian Academy
4. Fayetteville Christian School
5. Tabernacle Christian School
6. Liberty Christian Academy
7. Mount Zion Christian Academy
8. Victory Christian Center School
9. Al-Iman School
10. Upper Room Christian Academy
▪ Must be currently enrolled in a public school or entering kindergarten or first grade.
▪ Household income must meet guidelines based on family size. For instance, a family of four can earn up to $44,955 for a full scholarship or $59,790 for a partial scholarship.
▪ Once scholarships are awarded, students can keep them as long as they stay in any eligible N.C. private school.
▪ Cannot discriminate based on race, color or national origin.
▪ Must submit a criminal background check on the school’s top employee.
▪ Must administer at least one nationally standardized exam on grammar, reading, spelling and math for students in third grade or higher and submit results for recipients to the state. If the school has more than 25 scholarship recipients, it must report aggregate results, which will be made public on request.
▪ Must report graduation rates for scholarship recipients to the state.
▪ If the school receives more than $300,000 in scholarships, it must provide the state a financial review.
About this story
The N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, which administers Opportunity Scholarships, reports spending and recipients by school, county and ethnicity, but not by religious and nonreligious status. The Observer used school names and listings in the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education directory to determine which schools are faith-based.
Get Opportunity Scholarship data and application information at www.ncseaa.edu/osg.htm
1. Wake: 437
2. Cumberland: 419
3. Mecklenburg: 290
4. Guilford: 280
5. Forsyth: 184
6. Durham: 136
7. Gaston: 114
8. Onslow: 109
9. Union: 94
10. Randolph: 62