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Private school vouchers leave public school needs unmet

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The News & Record of Greensboro

Friday, January 12, 2018

State legislators are working to avert a looming funding crunch for local school systems, a key lawmaker said last week.

School districts are directed to reduce class sizes in primary grades but weren’t given additional money to carry out the mandate. Rep. Craig Horn, a budget co-chairman from Union County, said last week he’s aware systems are “under the gun” and expressed optimism that they’ll be granted funding soon.

That’s good news. Smaller classes are better for students and teachers, but more classroom space and teachers are needed to achieve them. The funding should have accompanied the directive in the first place. Without it, schools have to shift resources from higher grades to lower ones — in other words, rob Peter to pay Paul.

Meanwhile, the legislature continues to transfer funds from public schools to private schools through its “opportunity scholarship,” or voucher, program. In fact, public funding directed to private education is rapidly accelerating.

The voucher program sent $4.6 million to private schools in 2014-15; $13.1 million in 2015-16; $21.8 million in 2016-17; and $13.7 million in the first half of the current 2017-18 school year. The three-and-a-half-year total is $53.2 million, according to the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority.

The Greensboro Islamic Academy is one of the leading recipients of this funding, having gotten nearly $1.4 million to date. The number of students receiving state assistance to attend the school has risen each year, from 67 in 2014-15 to 131 this past fall. The state has paid an average of about $4,000 for each student. The school serves students through eighth grade.

Other Guilford County private schools awarded more than $100,000 just in the first half of the current school year are Vandalia Christian School, Tri-City Christian Academy, High Point Christian Academy and Wesleyan Christian Academy.

Children from low-income families are eligible to receive assistance of up to $4,200 per year. On its website, the Greensboro Islamic Academy encourages parents to apply for the state scholarships: “Please do not miss out on the great opportunity.”

While there’s no doubt that attending private school at public expense presents a great opportunity for students, and a windfall for the schools, the program was controversial from the beginning — deservedly so.

It was challenged in court by plaintiffs who complained that the state constitution directs the legislature to spend public money for public purposes. In a 4-3 decision in 2015, the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the program’s constitutionality, ruling that private education achieves a public purpose.

The ruling did not address the question of allocating taxpayer funds for religious education. Further litigation on that issue could arise in the future, especially if a plaintiff brings a religious discrimination case. For example, one local private school states in the admission requirements published on its website that “high school students must be born-again Christians.” So public money designated for that school is available only to students who meet a religious test.

For now, private school vouchers remain a political matter. Do taxpayers want to pay for children’s private education, and particularly private religious education? The vast majority of schools participating in North Carolina’s voucher program have a Christian orientation. Some are Islamic, some Jewish and some are secular. Furthermore, in contrast to strict accountability measures for public schools, there are few such requirements for participating private schools. Taxpayers can’t tell how much value the state is getting for the mounting expenditures flowing to private schools.

With so many public school financial needs unmet, more funding for private schools remains a poor policy. Private education should be paid for privately.

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