Education

Hold private schools that receive voucher money to higher standards, says Children’s Law Clinic report

Correction: Senate Bill 711 would not change income eligibility requirements for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. The bill would allow any student eligible to attend a North Carolina Public school to become eligible for a scholarship.

Private schools whose students receive taxpayer funded vouchers should be required to participate in state end-of-grade testing, says the authors of a new report recently released by the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke University’s Law School,

And participating schools should be required to offer a curriculum that’s equivalent to the curriculum used in public schools, the authors contend.

Staffed by Duke law students, the Children’s Law Clinic provides free legal advice, advocacy and legal representation to low-income, at-risk children in cases involving special education, school discipline and children’s disability benefits.

The recommendations are among those the authors made after a six-year review of North Carolina’s controversial Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides scholarships of up to $4,200 to help low-to moderate-income families send children to private schools.

Click here to see the report.

Taxpayers have spent more than $150 million on the voucher program since it launched in 2014. Another $730 million is set to be appropriated through 2027.

Public school advocates complain that the program fosters school segregation and lacks academic and fiscal accountability. They also contend it weakens public schools by shifting valuable resources to private schools while offering no evidence that students who receive vouchers perform better.

Meanwhile, voucher proponents say the scholarship provide low-and moderate-income families with financial assistance to flee failing schools and to choose schools that better fit their children

The Children’s Law Clinic’s report comes about two weeks after a group of Republican senators filed Senate Bill 711 to allow any student who attends a North Carolina public school to be eligible for the program.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican filed SB 711. Sen. Bob Steinburg, a Republican from Edenton and Sen. Norman W. Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, are co-sponsors.

Jane Wettach

Jane R. Wettach, the William B. McGuire Clinical Professor of Law at Duke, the clinic’s founding director and the report’s lead author, said it’s important that the General Assembly understand program details and how it has worked.

“I hope the data presented will help the legislature make sound decisions about the continuation of the program, with the interests of both students and the public in mind,” Wettach said.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, denounced the bill shortly after it was filed.

“It seems particularly callous right now to make this a priority,” Marcus told Policy Watch. “Increasing funding for a program that is already over-funded, that’s taking money out of the coffers that will be needed in so many other places right now. It’s just not the right priority. Funding more private school vouchers is not a critical need right now.”

The authors also recommend that schools be required to set reasonable qualifications for teachers and that failing schools be disqualified  from receiving voucher payments.

Here are some of the key findings in the report:

  • No information is available to the public about whether the students using school vouchers have made academic progress or have fallen behind. All public reporting on academic outcomes of students receiving vouchers has ended because the program’s design prevents meaningful data from being available.
  • The central feature of the program is the provision of a government subsidy to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools. More than 90 percent of vouchers are used to pay tuition at religious schools; three-quarters of those schools use a biblically-based curriculum presenting concepts that directly contradict the state’s educational standards.
  • Private schools participating in the program are not required to be accredited, adhere to state curricular or graduation standards, employ licensed teachers, or administer state end-of-grade tests. North Carolina’s accountability measures for the voucher program are among the weakest in the nation.
  • Nearly half of the new applicants are those entering kindergarten and first grade who have not attended public school. Most other children are required to have attended public school before applying for a voucher. Once a child is awarded a voucher, it can be renewed for successive years.
  • After convening a task force to study program evaluation, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program, concluded that its features prevent an independent research organization from conducting an effective, valid, and reliable evaluation. Thus, although the law requires such an evaluation to be conducted, none is planned.
  • Only about 5 percent of the schools accepting voucher payments are subject to financial review by the state. At least one private school, almost entirely supported by voucher payments, closed mid-year, leaving nearly 150 students to be unexpectedly absorbed by surrounding public schools.

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