Viewpoint

Pro and Con: Should N.C. Supreme Court OK school vouchers?

A student navigates the buses at Holly Grove Middle School in Holly Springs.
A student navigates the buses at Holly Grove Middle School in Holly Springs. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Bill Anderson says no, there’s no way to hold private schools accountable. Darrell Allison says yes, some public schools are failing and we need to give all kids a chance.

Bill Anderson

Dr. Bill Anderson is executive director of MeckEd, a nonprofit that supports strong public schools. Learn more about MeckEd by visiting www.mecked.org.

 

As the state Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of North Carolina’s new Opportunity Scholarship Program, perhaps this is a good moment to consider the investments taxpayers make to provide a sound basic education for all children.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) allocates public dollars for vouchers that would allow low-income students to attend private and religious schools. Each child is allocated up to $4,200 per year to put toward private school tuition. The debate about school voucher programs, like the OSP, is emotional and nuanced, with issues of race, poverty, and religion all at play. But let’s set those aside for a moment.

This program raises questions about the transparency, accountability and return taxpayers should expect for investing in education.

Those of us who raise concerns about the OSP do not do so because we oppose school choice. All families should be able to choose the best education for their children. But those choices should be quality ones. Ensuring high-quality education requires transparency and accountability – the same qualities taxpayers demand from traditional public schools.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood raised this point in his opinion to strike down the voucher program last summer. “Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose,” he wrote, “in violation of North Carolina Constitution Article 5.”

Simply put, private schools are not held to the same standards that we expect from traditional public schools. If we insist on curriculum standards, licensed teachers, and growth in student performance at our public schools, why wouldn’t we expect private schools that receive taxpayer dollars to be held accountable in the same way?

The business community talks a lot about return on investment. The only way to know whether an investment was a wise decision is to evaluate it based on performance. Unfortunately, North Carolina taxpayers will not be able to do that with the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Judge Hobgood agreed with this point, saying in his opinion that “the expenditure of public funds for private schools without substantive standards to ensure that the promised public good is actually provided cannot be for a public purpose and is unconstitutional.” Under the current voucher program, the public has no way to know if its investment was a good one. That should concern everyone who sends tax dollars to Raleigh.

The fact is, a sound basic education – what the courts say all children in North Carolina are entitled to have – costs more than $4,200 a year. Every state in America spends more than that per student on K-12 education. The national average is more than twice that number. And some of North Carolina’s most elite private schools charge more than five times as much in annual tuition.

Is it possible to receive a sound basic education for $4,200 per child? Will the OSP be a good return on the taxpayers’ investment? Will schools that fail to provide a sound basic education be allowed to continue to operate?

These are all legitimate questions. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t offer us a way to answer them.

Darrell Allison

Darrell Allison is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

 

“The bottom line is that the constitutional right belongs to the children. The right does not belong to the adults who are supposed to be ensuring the children of North Carolina obtain a sound basic education in each and every classroom in the state…”

This isn’t a quote from a right-wing conservative conspiring to destroy public schools, but from Judge Howard Manning. Since the Leandro decision 20 years ago, he has been addressing the disparities in education for minority, rural and low-income students through changes in state funding formulas, curriculum, testing, and teaching standards.

Recently Judge Manning concluded: “The academic results of North Carolina’s children enclosed in this Report show that there are way too many thousands of children ... who have not obtained the sound, basic education mandated and defined above and reaffirmed by the North Carolina Supreme Court.”

It is for this reason that we have the Opportunity Scholarship Program: it’s for low-income families whose children desperately need something different. As the Supreme Court weighs the program’s legality, it’s important that we also consider this issue in the court of parent opinion. With nearly 1,200 children in this program, what are parents saying about it?

Lisa Smothers of Wadesboro shares, “My children came home crying over different things happening to them at their district school. As a parent, I want them to develop into intelligent adults. I knew I didn’t want them returning to our failing public school system. This change – this opportunity – has improved their futures.”

Sara Lawson-Smith of Greensboro says, “When I found out that I’d received an Opportunity Scholarship for my son Riley, I cried. My son is now working with teachers who are identifying his individual needs and learning style. He is excelling academically and enjoys school.”

Melody Millsaps of Asheville says, “My boys needed the Opportunity Scholarship because their needs weren’t being met in public school. Teachers in their private school are able to identify their struggles and help them rather than feeling ignored and overlooked.”

In the landmark Leandro decision, the state Supreme Court ruled “every child in the state is guaranteed the right to a ‘sound, basic education’ in our public school.”

Opportunity Scholarship Program opponents will seize on the last four words of this statement, narrowly arguing that public schools only are predestined to educate our children. But what are we truly willing to do when we know poor families and children are not getting that sound, basic education – file another lawsuit when alternatives are offered? Moreover, let’s say the program’s opponents win. What will be their immediate plans to fulfill the constitutional requirement to truly educate these children who Judge Manning stated we’re already failing?

If North Carolina wants to be a leader, then we must focus more on customizing the education of every one of the more than 1.5 million children who attend our public schools.

What about parents like Lisa, Sara, and Melody who don’t live in the right ZIP code or lack the funds to easily pay for a private education? Our state is finally providing these parents real solutions to find that right to a sound, basic education and it would be devastating if our state snatched this opportunity away from them.

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