Commentary, Education

News & Observer “fact check” on senator’s school voucher claim tells only half the story

A recent News and Observer “fact check” weighed into the North Carolina Senate’s debate over a bill that would expand eligibility for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. The article rates Sen. Natasha Marcus’s claim that there’s no wait list for Opportunity Scholarship vouchers as “Half True” because she failed to tell “the full story.” Yet in going after Sen. Marcus’s statement, the N&O also fails to tell the whole story. By their own measure, the “fact check” itself is just “Half True.”

The bill that Sen. Marcus was debating, SB 609, would make two major changes to expand eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher.

First, the bill (which has passed the Senate and now awaits action in the House) would remove the cap on the number of new vouchers that could be provided to students in grades K-1. Currently, only 40 percent of new scholarships may be awarded to students in grades K-1.

Second, the bill would allow more middle-income families to be eligible for vouchers. Currently, families are eligible if their income is within 246.05 percent of the federal poverty level. If SB 609 becomes law, families with incomes within 277.5 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible. That would raise the eligibility from $63,359 to $71,457 for a family of four.

Senators are pushing these changes because in every year of its existence, funding for Opportunity Scholarship vouchers has exceeded awards of Opportunity Scholarships. Dollars have outstripped demand.

Given the program’s consistent over-funding, it’s totally reasonable that Marcus concluded, “Every student who’s eligible right now has received a voucher…So, there’s no wait list.” However, as the N&O points out, there were 520 income-eligible students in FY 18-19 who did not receive a voucher due to the cap on awards to students in grades K-1. These students are not placed on a wait list, so Marcus is correct – there is no wait list. And even if they were given full-value vouchers, the program would still be over-funded for FY 18-19. But the N&O decided to call her technically true statement “Half True” for “not telling the full story.”

Yet the N&O also fails to tell the whole story.

First, the N&O fails to mention why the cap on K-1 students is important. The cap was put into place because many of the vouchers awarded to students in those grades end up going to children who would have gone to private school anyway. Unlike students in grades 2-12, voucher applicants entering kindergarten or first grade are not required to have previously been enrolled in a public school. The creators of the Opportunity Scholarship voucher put the cap in place – originally set at 35 percent – to limit the amount of funding that the program would drain from public schools. After all, the state fails to save any money by giving someone a voucher to do something they were planning to do already.

The proof is in the numbers. Students in grades K-1 comprise only 15 percent of our public school population. The only reason K-1 students comprise more than 40 percent of the demand for vouchers is because many of these kids would have gone to private school even without a voucher. This seems like important context for those looking to tell the whole story on Opportunity Scholarships.

Second, Senate Republicans made more egregiously dubious claims during the debate over SB 609, too. However, these easily debunkable claims failed to draw the attention of the N&O’s fact-checkers.

For example, Senator Deanna Ballard falsely claimed the median income for Opportunity Scholarship families was just $16,213 when the actual figure is about twice that amount. Senator Phil Berger issued a press release falsely claiming that the changes proposed by SB 609 expand eligibility without imposing any additional costs. Of course both of SB 609’s changes – eliminating the cap on awards to students in grades K-1 and raising the income eligibility threshold – increase state costs by raising the share of vouchers going to students who would have gone to private school even if they didn’t receive a voucher. One would think these falsehoods would be an important part of telling the whole story of the SB 609 debates.

Ultimately, it’s seldom practical for any of us to tell the full story on any given topic. It’s particularly ridiculous to hold a General Assembly member to that standard in the midst of a floor debate. Doing so debases the whole idea of political “fact checks,” particularly at a time when so much actual misinformation is being disseminated from the General Assembly. Readers are given an inaccurate sense of which political leaders are actually lying to the public when so-called “half-truths” are given more airing than outright lies.

After all, “the full story” on education in North Carolina includes General Assembly leadership using bogus numbers to pretend they’ve spent more on schools than they have, consistently lying about teacher pay, spreading bizarre transphobic conspiracy theories, and pretending that they had fully-funded K-3 class-size requirements. If N&O fact checkers want to leave their readers better informed, it’s infinitely more important to highlight who, exactly, is consistently bending the truth, rather than dinging inconsequential floor statements on technicalities.

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

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