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Striking a new balance

As the budget continues to stall at the General Assembly, there is an opportunity for us to consider the Opportunity Scholarships program included in the budget. In finding the program constitutional, the North Carolina Supreme Court said that those with concerns about the policy should seek redress at the General Assembly. One aspect is the accountability and transparency measures for private schools that benefit from public funds. We have such frameworks in place for other kinds of publicly-funded education – school districts and charter schools. While these frameworks are not perfect, they stand in stark contrast to the measures currently in place for the Opportunity Scholarships program.  

We have a collective interest in safeguarding taxpayer funds and in ensuring that students are educated. For some, this means that there shouldn’t be any kind of voucher program. The question here is more narrow:

How could the General Assembly amend the program to provide better accountability and transparency of publicly-funded private education? 

The key is to find the balance between flexibility in a private setting with accountability for a publicly-funded education. Private schools are given considerable leeway in North Carolina with minimal regulations. But once taxpayer funds are involved, there are more interests at stake and the balance shifts towards more accountability and transparency.

Here are ways to strike that balance:

Participating schools could be required to use the same nationally standardized test or State-developed test.

Current law allows each participating school to choose any “nationally standardized test or other nationally standardized equivalent measurement” that measures achievement in English grammar, reading, spelling, and mathematics.1 There are many vendors of tests and testing services. These tests may vary in quality, relevancy, and appropriateness for grade-level.  For high school, the test should cover more than mathematics and English to gauge whether these students are prepared for career and/or college.  In addition, it will be impossible to compare student achievement across participating schools or with public schools if the same test is not used. Charter schools, by comparison, are required to conduct the student assessments required by the State Board of Education2 which allows for this kind of comparison.

Participating schools could be required to use the same calculation for graduation rates as public charter schools and district schools.

In submitting graduation rates to the State Education Assistance Authority, current law allows the participating school to calculate the rates in any “manner consistent with nationally recognized standards.”3 By contrast, the Department of Public Instruction makes readily available the same measures of 4-year and 5-year graduation rates for public charter schools and district schools. To compare all publicly-funded school options, participating schools also should use the same calculations.

Participating schools could be required to meet a minimum student size.

There is no minimum size for private schools in North Carolina and the laws for the Opportunity Scholarship program do not set a minimum size for participating schools. Without a minimum size, a private school could essentially be a home school. Do taxpayers agree with their funds being used in this manner?  In addition to raising this fundamental policy question around the scope of a voucher program, it is difficult to hold very small schools accountable for test scores and other aggregate measures. The minimum size should take into account all policy considerations. As a comparison, charter schools must meet the minimum size of 65 students, absent a compelling reason.4

Participating schools could be required to teach all core subjects (including history and science) in the same or similar sequence as public schools.

There should be some assurance that taxpayer funds are being used for a curriculum that provides an adequate education. There are no curriculum requirements for participating schools and the only required assessments are in English and mathematics. By comparison, charter schools are held accountable for the State Board’s student performance standards and must meet specified requirements in law for reading proficiency in the third grade. If taxpayer funds are being used to pay for an education, shouldn’t there be some fundamental curricular requirements, such as teaching science and history? Sequencing also is important so that if students return to the public schools, they will be able to be able to be placed at their age-appropriate grade level.

Participating schools could be required to provide certain information on their school website and to the State Education Assistance Authority for compilation and submission to the State Board of Education and the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.

There are many stakeholders who care about publicly-funded education:  citizens, businesses, policymakers, educators, and parents to name a few. Transparency can encourage good practices and allow parents to make informed decisions. It also can provide valuable information to policymakers to learn more about this publicly-funded approach. Participating schools could be required to make available the following kinds of information:

Provide a “school report card” (test scores, graduation rate)

Post the school calendar on the website to show the days and number of hours of instruction

Identify the percentage of licensed teachers in the classrooms

Identify whether the school is accredited and the name of the accrediting agency

Provide the policy for conducting criminal background checks for staff who have contact with students

Provide policies that state the school’s position on whether it discriminates on the basis of religion or disability

Identify whether transportation is provided to any or all students

Identify whether free/reduced price meals are provided to any or all students

Identify any costs incurred by parents during the school year other than the listed lump sum of tuition/fees

It is now the responsibility of the General Assembly to strike this balance. This is your opportunity to let your elected officials know your position on this issue.

Show 4 footnotes

  1.,  Administer, at least once in each school year, a nationally standardized test or other nationally standardized equivalent measurement selected by the chief administrative officer of the nonpublic school to all eligible students whose tuition and fees are paid in whole or in part with a scholarship grant enrolled in grades three and higher. The nationally standardized test or other equivalent measurement selected must measure achievement in the areas of English grammar, reading, spelling, and mathematics. Test performance data shall be submitted to the Authority by July 15 of each year. Test performance data reported to the Authority under this subdivision is not a public record under Chapter 132 of the General Statutes.
  2. N.C. General Statute § 115C-218.85. Course of study requirements.

    (a)        Instructional Program. –

    (1)        The school shall provide instruction each year for at least 185 days or 1,025 hours over nine calendar months.

    (2)        The school shall design its programs to at least meet the student performance standards adopted by the State Board of Education and the student performance standards contained in the charter.

    (3)        A charter school shall conduct the student assessments required by the State Board of Education. which allows for this kind of comparison.

  3. (5) Provide to the Authority graduation rates of the students receiving scholarship grants in a manner consistent with nationally recognized standards.
  4. (13) The number of students to be served, which number shall be at least 65, and the minimum number of teachers to be employed at the school, which number shall be at least three. However, the charter school may serve fewer than 65 students or employ fewer than three teachers if the application contains a compelling reason, such as the school would serve a geographically remote and small student population.
Ann McColl

Ann McColl is an attorney and state constitutional scholar.