Duke report blasts lack of accountability, results in North Carolina school voucher program

Calling accountability measures in North Carolina’s private school voucher program “among the weakest in the country,” a new report from a Duke University law clinic shreds the state’s lack of data, regulations and basic protections against discrimination.

The report, prepared by the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School, calls for a gamut of reforms to North Carolina’s ballooning voucher system, which, if it continues growing at its current pace, would cost the state about $900 million over the next decade, the report says.

Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon offers his thoughts here on the new report and the state’s burgeoning voucher spending, about 93 percent of which is spent on religious schools.

From the report’s conclusions:

“The research of programs from other states is now nearly unanimous in showing that students in voucher programs do not have better educational outcomes than children in public schools. Strikingly, all of these studied programs have even more oversight and accountability measures built into their design than does North Carolina’s. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that the program in North Carolina will produce different and better results than the ones produced around the country.”

The report goes on to detail a sweeping set of recommendations (see page 20) for lawmakers in the coming years, calling for officials to require that private schools expand their curriculum, set “reasonable qualifications” for teachers, ensure students participate in end-of-grade testing, report performance data, strengthen oversight and prohibit “all forms of discrimination” in schools accepting vouchers.

As Policy Watch has reported, some religious private schools in the state have been accused of imposing anti-LGBTQ policies.

The report also notes the difficulty in assessing student performance among voucher recipients, given the state does not require most schools accepting vouchers to make testing data publicly available.

North Carolina statutes require that performance data is public record if a school has more than 25 voucher recipients, although the report notes just 10 percent of private schools receiving vouchers turned in data to the state last year.

Meanwhile, despite frequent criticism from most Democrats and public education advocates, state lawmakers have moved aggressively to expand the voucher program, otherwise known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, in recent years, expanding the state’s scheduled investment in vouchers from about $44 million this year to roughly $145 million by 2027.

Rep. Rodney Moore

Rep. Rodney Moore (D-Mecklenburg), supports private school vouchers.

The voucher program provides $4,200 annual scholarships for low-income children to attend North Carolina’s mostly religious private schools. Last month, a number of African-American Democrats backing vouchers talked about the need to offer respite for long-suffering, poor communities with struggling public schools.

Voucher supporters say the program provides an alternative to those frustrated with their traditional schools, but critics note nationwide data suggests vouchers have been unsuccessful in stimulating academic growth for such children.

Additionally, they criticize policymakers’ bent toward funneling millions in taxpayer dollars to schools lacking the accountability controls imposed on traditional schools, accreditation and anti-discrimination provisions.

Many of those criticisms are echoed in this week’s report, which argues that the program does not seem built to spur the academic improvements touted by vouchers’ biggest supporters.

From the report:

As noted here, the North Carolina program is not designed to accomplish one of the main goals that its proponents express: to provide an escape mechanism for students in failing public schools so they can thrive in a more successful educational environment. The North Carolina program allows for participation in the program by children who are not in failing schools and by private schools that do not offer a more academically promising education.

The state’s very limited oversight of private schools in general and the exemption of voucher students from the state testing scheme leave the public with no way to engage in a valid evaluation of the program’s success or lack of it. At the same time, even if the state became aware of significant deficiencies in the participating schools, the law provides no mechanism for those schools to be denied continued receipt of voucher support.

The design of North Carolina’s program – as well as the way it has been used to date – is more suited to goals that do not relate to academic outcomes for children. The two most successful aspects of the program are that it allows for unfettered choice for participating parents regarding the schools their children will attend and that it provides state support for religious education.

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