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North Carolina has spent $12 million on private school vouchers this year

Vouchers14The Citizen-Times of Asheville is reporting this week that North Carolina has spent about $12 million this academic year, out of a budgeted $17.6 million, on the state’s controversial private school voucher program.

The vouchers, provided by the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, offer $4,200 scholarships for low-income children to attend the state’s private schools, which are mostly religious schools. 

From The Citizen-Times:

Statewide, officials received 8,675 new applications for the current school year. Of that number around 6,100 students were deemed eligible.

“I do think that the uncertainly around the court case had to have contributed to some families’ hesitation (to accept scholarships),” said Kathryn Marker, associate director for K-12 programs for the State Education Assistance Authority.

Conservative lawmakers in Raleigh have been ramping up support for the scholarship program in recent years, despite objections to the use of public money on private schools. Critics have also pointed out that private schools lack the same accountability standards as public schools. 

Opponents have also noted that the program could be used to funnel public cash toward schools with arguably discriminatory admissions policies.

As Policy Watch reported in January, one such voucher-eligible school in Lee County was requiring students and parents sign a pledge that denounced homosexuality as “immoral and sinful.” 

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New report points to segregation in private schools

school-busespng-91b35e2c325e0b5bLast month, we reported on the widening racial and economic divisions in North Carolina’s two largest school systems, despite ample evidence that high concentrations of impoverished children in any school can be harmful to students’ performance.

Now, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), a Georgia-based advocate for school equity, has issued a new report on virtual segregation in private schools across the country despite programs in 19 states, including North Carolina, tasked with funneling public cash toward increasing the population of low-income children in private schools.

Three years ago, North Carolina did just that with the Opportunity Scholarship Program, despite an outcry from many public education activists. And while the SEF’s report relies on 2012 demographic data (before the creation of this state’s voucher program), the numbers show segregation in private schools, particularly in southern states like North Carolina, is a very real problem.

From the report:

[W]hite students across most of the 50 states are significantly over-represented in private schools, often attending virtually segregated private schools, and usually attending private schools in which under-represented students of color — African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans — are virtually excluded. These overall racial patterns among America’s private schools are more severe in the South and especially extreme in the six Deep South states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina) that in the early 1960s both financed private schools and were foremost in blocking governmental mandates for significant public school desegregation. These “freedom of choice” states currently are among the nine Southern states providing public funding to private schools.

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State lawmaker says he expects House education committee to mull discrimination policy for voucher schools

N.C. Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., D-Forsyth

N.C. Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., D-Forsyth

One day after N.C. Policy Watch reported the story of a voucher-eligible Lee County private school’s arguably discriminatory admissions policy, N.C. Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., D-Forsyth, says he expects the state House education committee to address the topic when the legislature reconvenes in April.

Hanes, who sits as vice chair on the committee, says public funds should not be dispensed to any private school “with discriminatory intentions.”

The “lifestyle statements and covenant” issued by Lee Christian School, which requires signature by parents, employees and students grades 6-12, includes explicit denunciations of homosexuality and adultery.

According to the document, provided to Policy Watch by Lee County news blog The Rant, the school reserves the right to deny admission or expel students should the “atmosphere or conduct within” the student’s home contrast with the school’s anti-gay policy.

From the school’s agreement:

“Sexual relationships outside of marriage and sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are immoral and sinful. The depth of the sinfulness of homosexual practice is recognized, and yet we believe the grace of God sufficient to overcome both the practice of such activity and the perversion leading to its practice.”

Hanes, who was one of a handful of Democrats who originally supported the legislature’s controversial plan to funnel public funds into vouchers for private schools, says he has a record of supporting the LGBT community.

“I would not be in agreement with discriminating against anyone based on their sexual orientation,” Hanes said.

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Sex offender who worked at Christian voucher school charged, head of school takes leave of absence

A registered sex offender who worked at a Fayetteville private Christian school that has received more than $100,000 in publicly-funded school vouchers is now facing criminal charges—and the head of the school that hired him has taken a leave of absence, WRAL reports.

Paul Conner, 50, of Mosswood Lane in Fayetteville, is charged with three counts of violating the sex offender registry guidelines and one count of conspiracy, according to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.

The school’s [Freedom Christian Academy] principal, Joan Dayton, submitted a leave of absence to school officials Friday amid an investigation into claims that she allowed Conner to work at the school and that administrators changed student grades.

Dayton has not been charged, but is named in Conner’s arrest warrant as a co-conspirator.

Last week, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant to determine if Dayton, who employed Conner to do handyman work at Freedom Christian Academy, knew beforehand that he was a registered sex offender.

The detective working on the investigation concluded that there was probable cause that Dayton knew of Conner’s status thanks to emails she sent and interviews with teachers, staff and parents.

Dayton has not been charged, but she was named ‘co-conspirator’ in Conner’s arrest warrant, according to WRAL.

The investigation is also looking into allegations that school officials changed the grades of favored students and athletes.

Freedom Christian Academy has received $108,254 in public school voucher funds to date—the state’s fifth largest voucher recipient. Twenty-six of its 500+ students have each been able to use up to $4,200 in public funds to pay for tuition at the private religious school.

—>For more background: Private Christian school receiving $100,000+ in publicly funded school vouchers accused of knowingly hiring registered sex offender

Parents have posted multiple comments on Freedom Christian Academy’s Facebook asking for more answers.

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Stay tuned for further developments.

 

News

Private Christian school receiving $100,000+ in publicly funded school vouchers accused of knowingly hiring registered sex offender

A private Christian school in Fayetteville that has received more than $100,000 in taxpayer-funded school vouchers is now the subject of a criminal investigation into allegations that the head of school knowingly allowed a registered sex offender to work on campus. No criminal charges have been filed in relation to the case.

The offender, whose wife was also a teacher at Freedom Christian Academy, was on that school’s campus doing handyman work during the 2011-12 school year, occasionally coming into contact with students, according to a report filed by the Fayetteville Observer.

The Cumberland County Sheriff’s office executed a search warrant Wednesday to determine if the head of school, Joan Dayton, knowingly allowed the sex offender, Paul Conner, to work at the school.

Conner was found guilty in 2001 of taking indecent liberties and committing a sexual offense with an 8-year-old child. The offense occurred in 1994, when Conner was 30, and he served two years in state prisons from 2001-2003, according to the N.C. Department of Corrections.

“Yes, it’s a long story they obviously don’t want out,” said Dayton in a February 2012 email response contained in the search warrant that was addressed to another teacher who pointed out that Conner was a registered sex offender. “I have had many talks with him and he like lin [sic] were falsely accused. Do you want to hear the story from me?”

The sheriff’s office also investigated complaints that school officials changed grades for athletes and other favored students.

In a statement emailed to parents Wednesday evening and reported on WRAL.com, Dayton said Conner was simply helping his wife with her classroom after school hours and building some shelving for the school.

Ronnie Mitchell, a spokesperson for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s office, says the complainants in the investigation—a parent, teacher and former administrator—say otherwise, noting Conner was on the campus multiple times. Search warrant records also indicate Conner was paid for his work.

Based on the findings of the investigation to date and the affidavit in the search warrant, Mitchell said Dayton did conduct a criminal background check on Conner and knew that he was a registered sex offender, but employed him anyway. Once it was revealed to others that he was a sex offender, she terminated his employment, according to the search warrant.

State law says that registered sex offenders cannot come onto school grounds, regardless of whether they would or would not have arranged contact with students in the form of instruction or caregiving.

Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Frank Till said this would never happen at the district’s public schools.

“It wouldn’t be allowed. We screen all of our people and the principal does not have discretion,” said Till, with regard to hiring registered sex offenders.

Some with criminal backgrounds of lesser offenses are considered for school-based positions, like those who may have shoplifted in the past, said Till.

“But once you abuse a child, there’s no second chance. You’re finished,” Till said, adding that if Freedom Christian’s head of school somehow made it past the elaborate screening process the public schools use, he’d fire her.

Freedom Christian Academy is one of the top five private schools that have received taxpayer-funded school vouchers, formally known as Opportunity Scholarships.

The private religious school has received $108,254 in public dollars to date—the state’s fifth largest voucher recipient. Twenty-six of its 500+ students have each been able to use up to $4,200 in public funds to pay for tuition at the school.

State lawmakers passed a 2013 budget that tagged $10 million to be used for the “Opportunity Scholarships” beginning last fall. The vouchers, worth $4,200 per student annually, funnel taxpayer funds to largely unaccountable private schools–70 percent of which are affiliated with religious institutions. Teachers at private schools do not have to be licensed, and, as noted before, do not have to undergo criminal background checks.

The private voucher schools are also free to pick and choose who can attend their schools, in spite of the fact that they receive tax dollars. Freedom Christian Academy requires its applicants to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord, have at least one parent be a follower of Christ and provide a pastoral reference as part of the admissions process.

Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood found the state’s new school voucher program to be unconstitutional last year, but the program has been allowed to proceed while a court battle over the program’s legality continues.

The state Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision on the constitutionality of school vouchers within weeks, as the House debates a budget bill that could expand the program significantly, adding nearly $7 million to its coffers.

*Investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska contributed to this report.