Private school voucher program begins accepting applications as questions of accountability remain

More than 1,400 families have submitted applications for approximately 2,100 “Opportunity Scholarships” since the new school voucher program began accepting applications this past Saturday, February 1, according to the NC State Education Assistance Authority, the entity tasked with administering the program.

An estimated 2,400 taxpayer-funded school vouchers are available to North Carolina students for use at private schools beginning Fall 2014. Elizabeth McDuffie, Director of Grants, Training and Outreach for NCSEAA, said that while some who have already applied do not meet eligibility criteria, she anticipates that by the priority deadline of February 25, the number of eligible applicants will exceed the number of vouchers up for grabs.

For the first time in its history, North Carolina will allow taxpayer funds to go to largely unaccountable private schools, 70 percent of which are religious institutions. Last year, lawmakers tagged $10 million of the state budget for vouchers, which will be worth up to $4,200 annually for eligible families.

Opponents of school vouchers have filed lawsuits against the state seeking to stop the program. More than 50 local school boards have signed on as plaintiffs in the NC School Boards Association’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of school vouchers.

As NC Policy Watch has reported previously, questions of accountability, transparency and quality arise with school vouchers. There are minimal requirements for private schools when it comes to student assessment, and no standards at all for curricula, instructional staff and public accounting of the schools’ financial viability. Private schools can also pick and choose who they want to admit to their institutions.

There are a number of state-recognized private schools in North Carolina that employ fewer than three teachers and school less than 10 students. One private school in High Point looks more like a home school, with one teacher that instructs three students out of her house — and those students could be eligible for school vouchers this fall.

Private schools listed here will have to meet a set of requirements in order to participate in the school voucher program. Those steps include: provide a criminal background report for the head of the school (but not for any of its teachers); provide the school’s graduation rates; provide a copy of its tuition and fees policies and schedules; promise to provide each voucher student’s parents an annual written report of the student’s progress; and promise to administer a nationally standardized test once a year.

Additionally, private schools that enroll more than 25 voucher students must provide test score data on the aggregate to the NCSEAA, and private schools that accept more than $300,000 tax dollars must present the findings of a financial audit.

The NCSEAA will conduct a random lottery to determine which of the applicants that apply before the February 25 priority deadline will be awarded one of the ~2,400 vouchers.

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