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More than $4,000,000 worth of taxpayer-funded school vouchers have now been paid out to private schools subject to virtually no state oversight in North Carolina, according to records obtained by N.C. Policy Watch.

Documents released by the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority show that five private schools have now received at least $100,000 in state funds thanks to the new Opportunity Scholarships program, which offers low-income families $4,200 vouchers annually to use at private schools that are overwhelmingly affiliated with religious institutions and are not required to follow a curriculum, employ certified teachers or conduct criminal background checks on employees.

Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood found the 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 Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the voucher case February 17.

The top twelve schools receiving taxpayer-funded school vouchers are:

  1. Word of God Christian Academy (Raleigh) – $180,600
  2. Greensboro Islamic Academy – $142,800
  3. Concord First Assembly Academy (Concord) – $120,190
  4. Fayetteville Christian School – $118,230
  5. Freedom Christian School (Fayetteville) – $108,254
  6. Trinity Christian School (Fayetteville) – $96,600
  7. Tabernacle Christian School (Monroe) – $96,568
  8. Al-Iman School (Raleigh) – $86,841
  9. Raleigh Christian Academy – $81,900
  10. Victory Christian Center School (Charlotte) – $77,646
  11. Liberty Christian Academy (Richlands) – $75,530
  12. Bal-Perazim Christian Academy (Fayetteville) – $72,870

A total of $4,159,457 public dollars have been spent of the $10 million that state lawmakers appropriated for school vouchers last year (that figure does not include administrative costs).

Records also included numbers of school voucher recipients by ethnicity.

Ethnicity
American Indian or Alaska Native:                     9
Asian                                                                      20
Biracial                                                                 106
Black or African American                                 616
Hispanic                                                                102
Other                                                                      16
White                                                                     333
Total                                                                   1,202

Last year, N.C. Policy Watch reported that Greensboro Islamic Academy, one of the top recipients of taxpayer-funded school vouchers, was in financial trouble and pleading online for help from the public to fund its $150,000 shortfall so that the school could complete the 2013-14 school year.

Greensboro Islamic Academy has now received $142,800 for its 63 voucher students.

Read the full list of school voucher recipients below.

Commentary

Moral MarchWith the ninth annual Moral March on Raleigh/HK on J set for this Saturday, this morning’s Weekly Briefing attempts to remind readers of the enormous similarities between the civil rights movement of the 20th Century and today’s movement for justice in North Carolina. If you’re wavering on whether to attend, the piece may provide an extra boost of enthusiasm.

The same is true for the essay below from a very inspiring Guilford County public school teacher.

Why I’ll be marching this Saturday
By Todd Warren

As a North Carolina public school teacher, I know where I’ll be this Valentine’s Day: Marching on a cold February morning with other public education allies at this year’s Mass Moral March in downtown Raleigh. Hundreds of educators will be there, wearing red and marching with Raise Up for 15, the fast-food workers organizing for $15 per hour. We’ll be there marching to the NC State Capitol, demanding full funding for public education, and saying unequivocally, “Poverty Is An Education Issue.”

If it wasn’t already clear how closely academic achievement is tied to household income, the new state school report cards clearly demonstrate this connection. Data recently released by the NC Department of Public Instruction shows that of the 146 schools that received F’s, all were schools with over a 50 percent poverty rate. Of the 561 schools that received D’s, over 97 percent had a more than 50 percent poverty rate. A recent report from the Southern Education Foundation shows that 53 percent of our students in NC are in low income families.

The strong correlation between poverty and academic achievement has been noted for decades. Nutrition, stress, lack of health-care and housing stability all play a role in brain development and student learning. This is not disputed, yet as educators, we largely ignore poverty and instead focus on how to better teach our students. No amount of revised lesson plans or new curriculum will remove the impact of poverty on student learning. Taking a stand against low wage poverty is a stand for education.

I want to be clear: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the academic abilities of poor children. In fact, when you remove the stresses created by poverty, academic achievement goes up. There is something wrong with a society and economic system that allows so many of our children to live in poverty. Read More

News

Fewer college grads are flocking to Teach for America.

The New York Times reported last week that the embattled teacher training program, to which the North Carolina General Assembly has chosen to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars at great expense of the soon-to-be-defunct yet highly praised N.C. Teaching Fellows program, saw a ten percent drop in applications this year — the second year the program experienced a decline in interest.

TFA officials blame the rebounding economy for decreased interest in the program, which provides relatively minimal training to recent college grads and then unleashes them to go teach in typically high poverty schools.

Teaching has become a less popular prospect as a whole, with the entire country seeing a 12.5 percent drop in applications for teacher preparation programs from 2010-2013. North Carolina’s schools have seen a 27 percent drop in applications over the past four years.

But the Times article also highlights the diminished luster of the program, telling the story of one college grad who was initially enthusiastic about jumping into teaching by way of Teach for America:

When Haleigh Duncan, a junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, first came across Teach for America recruiters on campus during her freshman year in 2012, she was captivated by the group’s mission to address educational inequality.

Ms. Duncan, an English major, went back to her dormitory room and pinned the group’s pamphlet on a bulletin board. She was also attracted by the fact that it would be a fast route into teaching. “I felt like I didn’t want to waste time and wanted to jump into the field,” she said.

But as she learned more about the organization, Ms. Duncan lost faith in its short training and grew skeptical of its ties to certain donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropic group governed by the family that founded Walmart. She decided she needed to go to a teachers’ college after graduation. “I had a little too much confidence in my ability to override my lack of experience through sheer good will,” she said.

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News

Cabarrus County Schools’ Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Jason VanHeukelum, is not happy with the state’s new A-F school grading system.

“More than 90 percent of our teachers met or exceeded growth targets in 2013—yet 20 percent of our schools received Ds,” said VanHeukelum in an interview with N.C. Policy Watch. “Those figures just don’t match up.”

And the two schools in his district that did receive As? They are a magnet school and an early college high school.

“They’re selective programs,” said VanHeukelum of the A schools. “You have to apply to get in and you’re typically already on grade level. This metric of school grades that is so tightly tied to poverty—it’s hard to know what to do with it.”

On Thursday, North Carolina unveiled A-F letter grades for its approximately 2,500 schools, and the results were predictable, yet startling: the vast majority of schools serving poor students all received Ds or Fs, while schools in wealthier areas fared better.

Reaction from the education community has been by and large negative: the A-F school grading mechanism, which heavily favors students’ performance on standardized tests on a given day rather than improvement made over time, is a flawed formula, according to many.

VanHeukelum wrote a scathing review of the A-F grading system earlier this week.

While we welcome accountability for student achievement, I believe [the A-F school grading system] is an ill-conceived measure that is determined more by poverty than by the actual work of teachers and administrators in our schools.

In his editorial, which also appeared in the local newspaper, VanHeukelum connected the dots between poverty and student achievement, citing academic research that documents the link between socioeconomic status and student readiness for school.

In the wake of the A-F school grades’ unveiling, VanHeukelum said that school officials in his district are doing their best to manage public expectations.

“With our schools that have Cs and Ds, they [school administrators] are trying to assure their teachers and parents that they are doing good work — so they are trying to come up with other metrics to assure them,” said VanHeukelum.

“[The school grade] is a hard message to counteract. If I read in the paper that my school is a D school, and then my principal tells me we’re doing good things, I’m gonna be skeptical.”

VanHeukelum hopes that community members won’t just pick up and flee low performing schools for what appear to be better ones based on the A-F school grades, because there is often really good work and progress happening at schools that have been labeled C or D.

“I’m hopeful that our community recognizes that you’re not grading the work of the school, you’re grading the kids that come to that school—you’re grading poverty.”

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

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