Senate leader Phil Berger has accused Durham Public Schools of levying an unconstitutional tax on parents by charging for children to attend the district’s “learning centers,” which are day-long versions of the district’s before-school and after-school programs.
Berger and Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from Watauga County, contend such fees are illegal.
“Charging a tax on families who wish to access public learning center resources inside public schools is unconstitutional,” Berger said in a statement. “Durham, and any other jurisdiction charging this illegal tax, is preventing underprivileged families from accessing public school resources. They need to repeal their unconstitutional school tax immediately.”
Berger added: “Durham Public Schools is opening some of its school buildings as “learning centers.” It is not clear how operating a “learning center” inside of a public school building, using public school staff, is different from a public education.
“The N.C. Constitution requires the state to provide “a general and uniform system of free public schools…wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students,” he wrote.
Berger made a leap from criticism DPS’ “Learning Centers” to boasting about education spending increases while Republicans have controlled the General Assembly. He also touted the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program that gives families up to $4,200 to send children to private schools.
“The far-left N.C. Association of Educators, with support from Gov. Roy Cooper, has been trying to kill the program for years,” Berger said.
Meanwhile, Ballard said the DPS fee doesn’t promote equity.
“Durham’s illegal school tax makes worse the very inequities a public school system is supposed to address,” she said. “Durham will widen the achievement gap between well-off students and less fortunate students by making public schools accessible only to those who can afford to pay the tax.”
DPS reopened schools this week with remote only instruction. The centers are for parents who must work while schools are closed for in-person instruction.
According to the DPS website, the Learning Centers will charge fees on a sliding income scale like the district does for its before-and-after school programs. Homeless students and those in foster care will not be charged.
Students will be supervised and are expected to access and attend their virtual classes.
DPS didn’t directly responded to Berger’s and Ballard’s criticism.
A spokesman sent Policy Watch paragraphs from the district’s website explaining how the centers operate.
But some educators took issue with Berger’s criticism and posted comments on Facebook.
“Berger comes to Durham, like, never. He needs to worry about Rockingham County,” said Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association of Educators, referring to Berger’s home county.
Others suggested Berger send money from Raleigh to cover the cost of the centers and some explained that the fee to attend such centers are no different from charging to attend a before school-program or an after-school program.
“You can’t be this dense can you? This is the same after school care that ALL school districts offer and have always charged for. They are just offering during the school day for parents who work and need the extra hours. It’s always been a paid for service and it’s not a “tax”. There is NOTHING unconstitutional about it,” wrote Meagan H. MB.