Lawmaker turned down 2008 trip from school voucher group over ethical worries

At least one lawmaker invited on a 2008 trip to Florida paid for by a school voucher group declined to go.

State Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Fayetteville, said he initially considered going on an educational trip  sponsored by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina to learn about Florida’s school voucher program for disabled and exceptional children.

The group had gotten an ethics advisory letter from the State Ethics Commission saying that the trip would be an allowable exception to the state’s lobbying gift ban, if organizers ensured that the primary focus was to educate, and not to influence lawmakers.  (Click here to read the 2008 letter, provided by PEFNC to WRAL.)

But Glazier said, despite the ethics advisory letter, he still turned down the trip because he felt it came to close to a lobbying trip for his comfort.

“As we got a little more deep into it, I became concerned,” Glazier said. “I had concerns about whether it met the criteria and decided that I could not engage and would not go.”

Parents for Educational Freedom used the 2008 ethics advisory letter as the basis for a trip this March in which it paid for a bipartisan group of 11 lawmakers, including N.C House Speaker Thom Tillis, to hear about a tax credit scholarship program. (Click here to read our investigation about the Miami trip from last week.)

On the March trip, lawmakers only heard from proponents from the program, and six of the lawmakers asked to go on the trip received campaign contributions from the political-action-committee associated with PEFNC a few weeks after the March trip.

On the trip were six Republicans and five Democrats: N.C. Reps. Hugh Blackwell, R-Valdese; Marilyn Avila, R-Raleigh; Marcus Brandon, D-High Point; Elmer Floyd, D-Fayetteville; Mike Hager, R-Rutherfordton, Marvin Lucas, D-Spring Lake and Speaker Tillis, R-Cornelius; and state Sens. Malcolm Graham, D-Charlotte; Kathy Harrington, R-Gastonia; Edward Jones, D-Enfield, and Dan Soucek, R-Boone.  State Rep. Bryan Holloway, a Rockingham County Republican, was scheduled to be on the trip but canceled at the last minute, according to lobbying disclosure forms.

(Note: The following was added after initial publication). Those receiving campaign contributions from the PEFNC PAC were Brandon, Blackwell, Floyd, Holloway, Tillis and Soucek.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, who did not go on the trip, announced he would introduce a bill to bring the controversial tax credit voucher program to North Carolina. Stam spoke at a lobby day rally held by Parents for Educational Freedom with an estimated group of 1,000 people in attendance.

In other states, the legislation has allowed individuals and companies dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for donating to scholarship foundations intended for low-income children to attend private schools.Tax credits differ from charitable donations, with the entire dollar amount of a tax credit lopped off the total amount of taxes owed to the state.

PEFNC did not seek a formal ethics option about the March trip. State ethics officials have repeatedly said that they make decisions about whether a lobbying expense is allowed on a case-by-case basis, and urge groups and lawmakers not to rely on past opinions because both circumstances and the state’s ethics laws have changed.

The scholarship programs have also largely benefited religious, often fundamental Christian schools, and scholarships have also gone to children already enrolled in private schools, not needy children in public schools.

he New York Times published an extensive article Tuesday, “Public money finds back door to private schools,”  examining the rapid growth of the tax credit voucher program, which has been pushed across the country by conservative school choice groups and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Critics say the programs allows tax money, that otherwise would go to public schools and state programs, to flow through to the unregulated private schools.

From the Times article:

Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.

While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.

Most of the private schools are religious. Nearly a quarter of the participating schools in Georgia require families to make a profession of religious faith, according to their Web sites. Many of those schools adhere to a fundamentalist brand of Christianity. A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist — a world ruler predicted in the New Testament — will one day control what is bought and sold.

5 Comments

  1. Travis Lewis

    May 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    I’m unclear on the newsworthiness of this post. Rick Glazier decided to not go on a trip that the Ethics Commission “okay’d” four years ago. So? If you think the scholarships are a bad idea, that’s one thing, but Rep. Glazier not attending a trip doesn’t prove anything and isn’t really newsworthy after four years. Fail.

  2. Sarah Ovaska

    May 23, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Travis, thanks for adding your comments, and for reading. This was intended as more an addendum to the previous articles I’ve written about the trip.

  3. wncgirl

    May 23, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    I think it was to underscore how transparently unethical it was for them to attend the lobbying event…

  4. Jeff S

    May 24, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    I think you missed out by saying that 6 of the 11 received contributions, but failing to name them.

  5. Sarah Ovaska

    May 24, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Good point Jeff.

    The lawmakers who received campaign contributions were Tillis, Holloway, Brandon, Blackwell, Floyd and Soucek.