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School-vouchersReligious private schools account for 90 percent of those receiving the state’s new taxpayer-funded school vouchers—a disproportionately high amount given that only 66.4 percent of the state’s 715 private schools are religious institutions.

According to data released by the N.C. State Educational Assistance Authority, 98 out of the 109 private schools that have received vouchers (formally known as Opportunity Scholarships) from the state so far are religious institutions. Ninety-four of those schools identify as Christian, and four other schools identify as Islamic. To date, the state has disbursed just over $1 million to the religious schools.

The largest recipient of school voucher dollars thus far is Greensboro Islamic Academy. The school has received more than $90,000 from taxpayers while information has surfaced indicating that the school is in financial trouble and has inflated its tuition rates to reap as many publicly-funded vouchers as possible to stay afloat. Read More

News

The first million dollars in taxpayer-funded school vouchers have been sent to private and religious schools across North Carolina, the AP reports.

From the News & Observer:

The first million dollars have been sent to private and religious schools across North Carolina while an appeals court considers a judge’s ruling that a new scholarship program for low-income public school children is unconstitutional.

About $1.1 million was distributed last Friday to 109 private schools that accepted students under the Opportunity Scholarships program, State Educational Assistance Authority grants director Elizabeth McDuffie said Monday. That distribution was to cover part of the tuition for 568 students, according to the state agency administering the program.

The schools were primarily Christian, Baptist, Catholic or Islamic. The Greensboro Islamic Academy received the most money, $90,300 for 43 enrolled students. Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh received $54,600 for 26 students.

Earlier this month, The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the 1,878 students who have already been granted school vouchers can now use those taxpayer dollars at private schools while the fate of the program is decided. But the program cannot continue to award vouchers while the case is still tied up in the courts.

An August ruling by Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood found the school voucher law, enacted in 2013, to be unconstitutional, halting a program that as Judge Hobgood said, “appropriates taxpayer funds to educational institutions that have no standards, curriculum and requirements for teachers and principals to be certified.”

Hobgood’s ruling is under appeal by the state’s attorney as well as defendant-intervenors for parents and Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger.

Attorney Robert Orr, who represents the N.C. School Boards Association, told the AP, “everybody’s on notice that the court has already ruled at the trial level it’s unconstitutional. In the long run, if the trial court’s decision is affirmed, then we would look to the state to recover the public’s money. You have to emphasize that it is the public’s money that we’re talking about.”

Read the full story by AP reporter Emery Dalesio here.

News

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction received 40 applications this month to open up new charter schools in 2016, down from last year’s applicant pool of 71.

N.C. Office of Charter Schools director Joel Medley acknowledged the applicant numbers are down this year.

“It may be the application fee was raised from $500 to $1000. It may be that the timeline was moved forward a couple of months. It may be that some groups are waiting to submit using the new Fast Track Replication process,” Medley told N.C. Policy Watch, adding that he couldn’t give an accurate reason for why the numbers are fewer this time around.

Fourteen of this year’s applicants (click here for a spreadsheet listing the applicants) have indicated they plan to contract with education management organizations (EMO). For-profit EMOs were thrust into the spotlight during last summer’s legislative session, when the General Assembly approved legislation that allows private, for-profit charter school management companies to keep their employees’ salaries secret, even though they are paid with public funds.

At least ten of the forty applicants are re-submissions from prior years, Medley told N.C. Policy Watch.

According to the Office of Charter Schools, there are currently 148 charter schools in North Carolina—a figure that expanded quickly when lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap on how many charter schools could operate in the state back in 2011.

But last year, the pace of charter school approvals slowed down considerably. While the State Board of Education approved 23 charter schools to open in 2013 and 27 schools to open in 2014, only 11 out of 71 applicants were green-lighted to open in 2015, a figure that prompted a heated debate between Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) members tasked with reviewing the applications.

According to the Charlotte Observer, CSAB board member Alan Hawkes of Greensboro emailed his fellow members to chastise them for being “judgmental and punitive” in rejecting plans that would have expanded charter school enrollment.

“The plan was to have operators come into the state like they did in Louisiana and other states and quickly affect the public school choice landscape for the better and in quantity,” said Hawkes, a founding board member of two Guilford County charter schools run by the for-profit National Heritage Academies. Hawkes also indicated that he received heat from Sen. Jerry Tillman about the low number of approved charter school applications.

Reviewers of charter school applications may prove to be more cautious now, in light of the fact that a few charter schools have abruptly closed thanks to poor financial management and other governance problems.

Most recently, Concrete Roses STEM Academy in Charlotte shut down 20 days into the school year. The school had its funding frozen by the state after the school failed to submit required financial forms. The school’s sudden closure left families of the school’s 126 students scrambling to find new schools, while taxpayers likely lost the $285,170 the school already withdrew from the state’s coffers.

For some who wish to open a charter school in North Carolina, there’s still another option for submitting applications for 2016. Thanks to legislation passed last summer, a fast-track process has been put in place for successful charter schools wishing to replicate themselves and for charter chains wishing to expand their presence in the state. The State Board of Education must adopt rules for the fast-track replication process no later than December 15, 2014.

2015 Fiscal Year State Budget, Falling Behind in NC, NC Budget and Tax Center

This week the Budget & Tax Center released a new report on North Carolina’s 2015 fiscal year budget. While other states across the country are beginning to reverse the worst cuts made during the Great Recession, North Carolina continues to underfund crucial public investments in order to pay for tax cuts that took effect this year. Lawmakers failed to provide a high-quality education for all children, protect natural resources, support community-based economic development, or provide adequate health and human services to North Carolina residents.

Under the final budget, state investments are 6.6 percent below pre-recession levels five years into the official economic recovery. The new budget for the 2015 fiscal year is the 7th budget enacted since the Great Recession hit, and North Carolina has yet to bounce back to its pre-recession investment level. This is in contrast to spending during previous economic recoveries – spending did not dip after the 1981 and 2001 recoveries and state lawmakers restored investments to the levels that were in place when the 1990 recession hit within three years. Read More

Commentary

The next time someone tells you how “lavishly” North Carolina is spending on its public schools, tell them to read or listen to this story on WUNC radio entitled: “In NC Schools, There’s One Counselor for Every 400 Students.” As the story reports:

[Kim] Hall has been a school counselor for 29 years. She says she tries to make more time for students as her clerical duties have grown over the years.

When she first started, she was one of four counselors. Today, she is one of two counselors in a school with more than 800 students. That means more work and more school programs to manage.

“Not only have they taken away the number of counselors… but then they have added on more programs and then they think, ‘Oh, who’s going to take care of that? Oh we’ll have the counselor do it!’” she says.

And it’s not just more programs. Across from her desk, there’s a large stack of folders filled with student test scores. They’ve landed in her office after Randolph County cut its testing coordinators last year.

As the story goes on to note, not only are there far too few counselors, those remaining on the job are increasingly swamped with more and more non-counseling related duties as schools, understandably, rely increasingly on an all-hands-on-deck approach just to survive the demands of each day.

Read/listen to the entire story by clicking here.