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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.

Commentary

School-vouchersIf you still harbor any doubts about what the American far right has in mind when it comes to the future of public education, there’s a helpful reminder in Texas right now where ideologues are seriously advancing a new proposal to commence the process of doing away with it. As public schools champion Diane Ravitch points out his morning on her blog, the latest voucher proposal under consideration in the Lone Star state appears to be a truly a frightening mess.

Ravitch points readers to a recent and critical op-ed in the Houston Chronicle by Republican politico Chris Ladd (a fellow who, rather remarkably, writes under the moniker “GOP Lifer”) in which he describes the proposal that would both allow vouchers and a new and parallel funding scheme whereby some taxpayers could simply earmark their taxes to fund private schools. Here’s Ladd:

“These two bills would not merely privatize schools. They would privatize the school funding system as well, creating an entire parallel world free from the liberal horrors of a real education infrastructure. Taxpayers could simply exit the existing public school funding system in favor of their own private school funding entities which they control entirely…. Read More

Commentary

In case you missed it the other day, Asheville writer Martin Dyckman published an excellent essay in the Asheville Citizen-Times that explained the real deal with North Carolina’s toxic and troubling school vouchers program. As Dyckman explained, after describing a push poll/robocall he received from the voucher champions at the Pope-Civitas Institute:

“Two days later, Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake), the Godfather of vouchers, staged an elaborate press conference to say he wants a fourfold expansion of the program, which costs $10.8 million a year.

Stam didn’t propose abandoning income limits, although they’re scheduled to rise to 133 percent of poverty this year.

But the Civitas robopoll makes it obvious where the camel’s nose is heading.

That’s if the Supreme Court overturns a Superior Court decision that the program is flagrantly unconstitutional.

The pretext for the vouchers is to entitle poor kids to a good private education on the same terms as their more privileged peers.

That’s a fallacy if not a fraud. At $4,200, the maximum voucher is worth only a fraction of what quality private schools often charge; they’re beyond the reach of low-income families despite the subsidy. The public schools budget twice as much per student.”

After citing some N.C. Policy Watch reporting on the religious schools that have been raking in the voucher dough, Dyckman concludes this way:

“This is as flagrant a misuse of public money as it would be to pay the church’s pastor out of the state treasury. Read More

Commentary

School-vouchersIf it strikes you as odd and troubling that North Carolina has started bestowing “failing” grades on public schools even as it writes checks to unaccountable private schools which teach that humans and dinosaurs coexisted on the planet at the same time, you’re not alone. The idea of school vouchers remains enormously controversial in our state and rightfully so.

For better or worse, however, at this point, the only opinions that really matter on the issue are those of the seven members of the state Supreme Court. In less than two weeks, the justices will hear arguments in the case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s voucher scheme and, presumably, issue a final judgment sometime in the coming months.

If you’d like to understand where things really stand and what may happen, please join us next Tuesday February 10 as an expert panel addresses: “The constitutional challenge to school vouchers: Where do things stand? What happens next?”

Click here to register.

The luncheon will feature

Read More

Commentary

Mark your calendar for the next N.C. Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon on Tuesday, February 10:

“The constitutional challenge to school vouchers: Where do things stand? What happens next?”

Click here to register

For the time being, school vouchers have come to North Carolina. Thanks to the state’s conservative political leadership, several million dollars in taxpayer money now flow to unaccountable private and religious schools throughout the state.

Last summer, state Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood struck down the voucher plan as unconstitutional saying: “The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.”

NCPW-CC-2015-02-10-School-Vouchers-Ward

Since that time, however, both of the state’s higher courts have allowed the voucher program to proceed. Meanwhile, the case challenging its constitutionality has been fast-tracked for final argument. On February 17, lawyers for both sides will appear before the state Supreme Court to make their cases.

What will the parties say? What should we expect to happen? What can and should concerned citizens do?

Please join us as we explore the answers to these questions and others with one of the lead plaintiffs in the constitutional challenge to the law, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mike Ward. (Pictured above, right)

NCPW-CC-2015-02-10-School-Vouchers-BischoffNCPW-CC-2015-02-10-School-Vouchers-Holmes

Ward will be joined by two of the state’s leading education policy advocates, attorneys Christine Bischoff (picture far left) of the North Carolina Justice Center and Jessica Holmes (pictured at left) of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

Don’t miss the chance to get fully up to speed on this important issue at this critical juncture.

When: Tuesday, February 10, at noon — Box lunches will be available at 11:45 a.m.

Where: The North Carolina Association of Educators Building, 700 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh, NC 27601

Space is limited – preregistration required.

Cost: $10, admission includes a box lunch.

Click here to register

Questions?? Contact Rob Schofield at 919-861-2065 or rob@ncpolicywatch.com