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Initially the state Supreme Court signaled that it wanted to move quickly to rule on whether tax-financed vouchers for private school students violated the North Carolina Constitution. But now, it seems, the justices have taken the case off the fast track.

The Republican-majority legislature, however, isn’t inclined to wait around for the Supreme Court. Having already appropriated nearly $11 million in financial assistance to private school students in households of modest income, lawmakers provided another $6.8 million in both House and Senate budget bills for the 2015-16 fiscal year. And this week, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger asked the high court to release funds for vouchers for the 2015-16 school year, even as the justices continue to weigh whether the subsidies are constitutional.

Thus, the issue of vouchers — or, Opportunity Scholarships, as they are called here in North Carolina — remains in play in terms of both constitutionality and public policy. It is an issue laden with significance for the future of schooling in North Carolina:

Proponents see vouchers as enabling parents to choose a suitable school for their children; opponents see the law as undermining the very concept of public schools as institutions essential to the common good.

In my experience, private schools, however robust, cannot substitute for a strong system of public education in creating the conditions for a sound and equitable economic environment and community cohesiveness.

I say this as a product of private education. Growing up in the dense Catholic region of southern Louisiana, my parents, without government financial assistance, sent me to parochial elementary schools and to Catholic High School in Baton Rouge. I got my bachelor’s degree from Jesuit-run Loyola University New Orleans, and a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York.

No doubt, the United States, as well as North Carolina, benefits from educational diversity; private schools surely produce responsible, ethical citizens, as well as civic and business leaders. But taken in aggregate, private schools are as uneven educationally as public schools; some are splendid, some not strong enough, too many too weak.

In finding the voucher law unconstitutional, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood delivered a compelling ruling. When he decided the case in August 2014, Hobgood, a veteran jurist, did not hem and haw and hedge. The General Assembly, he ruled, must use public funds to assure a sound basic education to North Carolina young people in compliance with the Constitution, as interpreted previously by the high court.

“The Opportunity Scholarships would provide taxpayer funds to private schools without regard to whether these schools satisfy substantive educational standards. Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose, in violation of North Carolina Constitution Article 5…”

“The General Assembly,” Hobgood said, “cannot constitutionally delegate this responsibility to unregulated private schools by use of taxpayer Opportunity Scholarships to low-income parents who have self-assessed their children to be at risk. Private schools receiving Opportunity Scholarships are not subject to any requirements or standards regarding the curriculum that they teach, are given no requirement for student achievement, are not obligated to demonstrate any growth in student performance, and are not even obligated to provide a minimum amount of instructional time. The Opportunity Scholarships would provide taxpayer funds to private schools without regard to whether these schools satisfy substantive educational standards. Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose, in violation of North Carolina Constitution Article 5…”

Still, a month later, the Court of Appeals allowed the state to distribute the first round of vouchers while Hobgood’s ruling was appealed. Then, the state Supreme Court decided to take up the case before it was heard by the appeals court.

In the first round, the State Education Assistance Authority — a university-based agency assigned by the legislature to administer the vouchers — awarded financial assistance to 1,216 students who attended 224 private schools across North Carolina in the 2014-15 school year. The agency used a lottery to choose recipients, who received vouchers of up to $4,200.

The charts accompanying this article come from the assistance authority’s data, offering an early assessment of where and to whom vouchers have gone. Together, African-American and biracial students account for more than half of voucher recipients. Similarly, more than half are elementary school students. Also, more than half of vouchers have gone to students in five counties – Wake, Mecklenburg, Cumberland, Guilford and Forsyth.

The vast majority of private schools with voucher-assisted students had fewer than 10. The top three were: Greensboro Islamic Academy, with 67 voucher students in a K-5 school with an enrollment of 130; Word of God Academy in Raleigh, with 47 voucher students among its 200 students in K through 12; and Victory Christian Center School in Charlotte, with 37 vouchers students among its 300 K-12 enrollment.

Clearly, Republican budget-writers intend to expand the system, both by increasing the funds appropriated and making more students eligible by lifting the current financial eligibility lid. For now, GOP legislative leaders have the votes to expand vouchers. 

Yes, the legislature mandated that private schools with voucher-assisted students give a standardized test — but it didn’t specify which test. Nor did the legislature require that schools with voucher-assisted students hire teachers with the qualifications required in public schools.

In effect, the legislature has set up a new program of government spending without providing for ways to determine whether it works in closing achievement gaps and advancing educational excellence in North Carolina.

In the long run, even private schools that enroll students with vouchers may regret their acceptance of public funding. As the political winds shift, vouchers could be abolished, or scaled back, or regulations, now especially loose, will tighten and tighten, as authorities seek more accountability and transparency.

Given the implications for our state, our constitution, public schools, private schools, and students, the Supreme Court ought to take the time it needs to struggle with this weighty decision.


 

Voucher recipients by ethnicity, 2014-15

Ethnicity 2014-15 Recipients
Black or African American 623
White 333
Biracial 109
Hispanic 105
Asian 19
Other 18
American Indian or Alaska Native 9
Grand Total 1216

Voucher recipients by gender, 2014-15

Gender 2014-15 Recipients
F 617
M 599
Grand Total 1216

Voucher recipients by grade level, 2014-15

Grade Level 2014-15 Recipients
Repeating Kindergarten 5
First Grade 181
Second Grade 158
Third Grade 169
Fourth Grade 149
Fifth Grade 96
Sixth Grade 172
Seventh Grade 78
Eighth Grade 66
Ninth Grade 70
Tenth Grade 43
Eleventh Grade 24
Twelfth Grade 5
Grand Total 1216

Voucher recipients by nonpublic school, 2014-15

Nonpublic School 2014-15 Recipients
Greensboro Islamic Academy – Greensboro  67
Word of God Christian Academy – Raleigh  47
Victory Christian Center School – Charlotte  37
Concord First Assembly Academy – Concord  30
Fayetteville Christian School – Fayetteville  30
Freedom Christian Academy – Fayetteville  26
Tri-City Adventist JR Academy – High Point  25
Gospel Light Christian School – Winston Salem 24
Tabernacle Christian School – Monroe  24
Trinity Christian School – Fayetteville  23
Al-Iman School – Raleigh  21
Bal-Perazim Christian Academy – Fayetteville  20
Raleigh Christian Academy – Raleigh  20
Victory Christian Academy – Gastonia  19
Liberty Christian Academy – Richlands  18
Northside Christian Academy – Charlotte  17
Winston Salem Christian School – Winston-Salem  15
Mount Zion Christian Academy – Durham  14
Bethel Christian Academy – Spruce Pine  13
Upper Room Christian Academy – Raleigh  13
Community Baptist School – Reidsville  12
Berean Baptist Academy – Fayetteville  11
High Point Christian Academy – High Point  11
Johnathan`s House Chr School – Fayetteville  11
Mountain Island Day School – Charlotte  11
Bible Baptist Christian School – Matthews  10
Community Christian School – Wilson  10
Vandalia Christian School – Greensboro  10
Central Academy at Lake Park – Indian Trail  9
South Charlotte Baptist Academy – Pineville  9
St. Catherine of Siena Cath Sch – Wake Forest  9
Star Christian Academy – Smithfield  9
North Raleigh Christian Academy – Raleigh  8
Wesleyan Christian Academy – High Point  8
Bethel Christian Academy – Kinston  7
Caldwell Academy – Greensboro  7
Calvary Education Center – Lemon Springs  7
Cornerstone Christian Academy – Fayetteville  7
Cramerton Christian Academy – Cramerton  7
Faith Assembly Christian Academy – Raleigh  7
Jarvisburg Christian Academy – Jarvisburg  7
Paw Creek Christian Academy – Charlotte  7
St. Ann Catholic School – Fayetteville  7
St. Mark Catholic School – Wilmington  7
St. Patrick Catholic School – Fayetteville  7
The Burlington School – Burlington  7
Triad Baptist Christian Academy – Kernersville  7
Wake Christian Academy – Raleigh  7
Wayne Country Day School – Goldsboro  7
Alamance Christian School – Graham  6
Al-Huda Academy – Durham  6
Bethesda Christian Academy – Durham  6
Created for You Learning Acad – Red Springs  6
Crossroads Christian School – Henderson  6
Fellowship Baptist Academy – Durham  6
Oasis Performing Arts School – Charlotte  6
Shining Light Academy – Greensboro  6
Shining Light Baptist Academy – Monroe  6
St. Pius X Catholic School – Greensboro  6
St. Raphael`s Catholic School – Raleigh  6
Abney Chapel Christian School – Fayetteville  5
An-Noor School – Raleigh  5
Brisbane Academy – Charlotte  5
C3 Concord Christian School – Concord  5
Charlotte United Christian Acad – Charlotte  5
Christian Faith Center Acad. – Creedmoor  5
First Wesleyan Christian School – Gastonia  5
Immaculata Catholic School – Hendersonville  5
O`Neal School – Southern Pines  5
Rhema Christian Academy – Goldsboro  5
Rockwell Christian School – Rockwell  5
Southpoint Academy – Durham  5
St. Paul Catholic Educ Cntr – New Bern  5
Thales Academy of Wake Forest – Wake Forest  5
Union Grove Christian School – Lexington  5
Columbus Christian Academy – Whiteville  4
Community Christian Academy – Bessemer City  4
Crossroads Chr Sch of Statesville – Statesville  4
Ephesus Junior Academy – Winston-Salem  4
Fayetteville St Christian School – Asheboro  4
Halifax Academy – Roanoke Rapids  4
Harvest Time Christian Academy – North Wilkesboro 4
Hilltop Christian School – Fuquay-Varina  4
Immaculata Catholic School – Durham  4
New Bern Christian Academy – New Bern  4
New Garden Friends School – Greensboro  4
New Hope Christian Academy – Thomasville  4
New Life Academy – Elizabeth City  4
New Life Christian Acad & Prep Sch – Fayetteville 4
New Life Christian Academy – Rocky Mount  4
North Hills Christian School – Salisbury  4
Northwood Temple Academy – Fayetteville  4
Our Lady of Assumption Cath Sch – Charlotte  4
Roxboro Christian Academy – Roxboro  4
Sacred Heart Cathedral School – Raleigh  4
Salem Baptist Christian School – Winston-Salem  4
Scotland Christian Academy – Laurinburg  4
St. Mary Catholic School – Goldsboro  4
Tabernacle Christian School – Hickory  4
Temple Christian School – Rockingham  4
Thales Academy of Raleigh – Raleigh  4
Wilmington Christian Academy – Wilmington  4
Annunciation Catholic School – Havelock  3
Avonlea Learning Community – Weaverville  3
Bailey`s Grove Baptist School – Asheboro  3
Berean Junior Academy – Charlotte  3
Blessed Sacrament Cath School – Burlington  3
Carolina Christian Academy – Hayesville  3
Community Christian Academy – Greenville  3
Cornerstone Christian Academy – Statesville  3
Friendship Christian School – Raleigh  3
Gaston Christian School – Gastonia  3
Grace Christian Academy – Kings Mountain  3
Grace Christian School – Raleigh  3
Grace Christian School – Sanford  3
Harvest Preparatory Academy – Fayetteville  3
Hayworth Christian School – High Point  3
Heritage Christian School – Hudson  3
Infant of Prague Cath School – Jacksonville  3
Lake Norman Christian School – Davidson  3
Liberty Preparatory Christian Acad. – Mooresville 3
Nebo Crossing Academy – Nebo  3
New City Christian School – Asheville  3
New Classical Academy – Asheville  3
Our Lady Perpetual Help Cath Sch – Rocky Mount  3
Raleigh SDA School – Raleigh  3
Riverside Christian Acad – Lumberton  3
Rockfish Christian Academy – Raeford  3
Sacred Heart Catholic School – Salisbury  3
Stedman Christian Academy – Stedman  3
Teaching Achieving Students Acad – Charlotte  3
Bethany Christian School – Thomasville  2
Bishop McGuinness Cath H. S. – Kernersville  2
Brookhaven SDA School – Winterville  2
Canterbury School – Greensboro  2
Cape Fear Christian Academy – Erwin  2
Carolina Adventist Academy – Whiteville  2
Carolina Baptist Academy – Reidsville  2
Destiny Now Academy – Fayetteville  2
Dream Big Christian Academy K-12 – Dunn  2
Faith Assembly Christian Academy – Durham  2
Faith Christian School – Rocky Mount  2
Flaming Sword Christian Academy – Fayetteville  2
Gordon Baptist Christian School – North Wilkesboro 2
Grace Academy – Rockwell  2
High Point Friends School – High Point  2
Hobgood Academy – Hobgood  2
Holden Beach Christian Academy – Supply  2
Immaculate Heart of Mary Cath Sch – High Point  2
Kings View Christian Academy – Bessemer City  2
Liberty Christian Academy – Ellenboro  2
Living Water Christian School – Jacksonville 2
Male Leadership Academy of Charlotte – Charlotte 2
National Child Care Institute – Matthews  2
Neighbors Grove Christian Acad – Asheboro  2
Neuse Christian Academy – Raleigh  2
Pope John Paul II Catholic H. S. – Greenville  2
Providence Christian Academy – Asheville  2
Redeemer School – Winston Salem  2
Renaissance Class Chr Acad – Fayetteville  2
Rocky Mount Academy – Rocky Mount  2
Sheets Memorial Christian School – Lexington  2
St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Sch – Apex  2
Temple Baptist School – Asheville  2
Trinity Christian School – Rutherfordton  2
Unity Christian Academy – Chocowinity  2
Vance County Learning Center – Henderson  2
Village Christian Academy – Harrisburg  2
Wescare Christian Academy – Troy  2
Willow Tree Community School – Boiling Springs 2
Wilson Christian Academy – Wilson  2
Woodland Baptist Chr. Sch. – Winston-Salem  2
All Saints Academy – Wake Forest  1
Back Creek Christian Academy – Charlotte  1
Brookstone Schools – Charlotte  1
Calvary Christian School – King  1
Calvary Christian School – Wilmington  1
Cardinal Gibbons High School – Raleigh  1
Christ Covenant School – Winterville  1
Concordia Christian Day Sch. – Conover  1
Covenant Day School – Matthews  1
Daniel Academy – Concord  1
Emerson Waldorf School – Chapel Hill  1
Fayetteville Academy – Fayetteville  1
First Assembly Christian School – Monroe  1
Fletcher Academy – Raleigh  1
Franciscan Catholic School – Raleigh 1
Gethsemane Christian SDA Jr. Acad. – Raleigh  1
Greater Vision Academy – Gibsonville  1
Greenfield School – Wilson  1
Greenville Christian Academy – Greenville  1
Haw River Christian Academy – Pittsboro  1
Holy Trinity Catholic Middle School – Charlotte  1
Hope Academy – Greensboro  1
Knowledge is Power Early Lrng Prog – Charlotte  1
L & L Montessori School – Southport  1
Learning Foundations School – Wilmington  1
Longleaf Academy – Southern Pines  1
Millers Creek Christian School – Millers Creek  1
Mintz Christian Academy – Roseboro  1
Miracle Tabernacle Christian Sch – Roanoke Rapids 1
Mountain Sun Community School – Pisgah Forest  1
Northeast Academy – Lasker  1
Oakwood School – Greenville  1
Our Lady of Grace Catholic Sch – Greensboro  1
Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Sch – Winston-Salem  1
Outreach Christian Academy – Hamlet  1
Piedmont School – High Point  1
Pope John Paul II Catholic School – Southern Pines 1
Salem Academy – Winston-Salem  1
Spirit of Life Christian Academy – Clinton  1
St. Egbert Catholic School – Morehead City  1
St. Mary Catholic School – Wilmington  1
St. Michael`s Catholic School – Gastonia  1
St. Patrick Catholic School – Charlotte  1
St. Peter`s Catholic School – Greenville  1
St. Thomas More Academy – Raleigh  1
Statesville Montessori School – Statesville  1
Stevens Prep Academy – Raleigh  1
Trinity Academy of Raleigh – Raleigh  1
Trinity Episcopal School – Charlotte  1
Veritas Christian Academy – Fletcher  1
Wanchese Christian Academy – Wanchese  1
Westchester Country Day School – High Point  1
Grand Total 1216

Voucher recipients by county, 2014-15

County 2014-15 Recipients
Wake County 170
Guilford County 154
Mecklenburg County 141
Cumberland County 140
Forsyth County 63
Gaston County 42
Durham County 39
Union County 31
Cabarrus County 27
Hoke County 24
Onslow County 18
Rowan County 18
Randolph County 17
Johnston County 16
Nash County 15
Alamance County 14
Wayne County 14
Buncombe County 13
New Hanover County 12
Pitt County 12
Harnett County 11
Lenoir County 11
Mitchell County 11
Robeson County 11
Rockingham County 11
Craven County 10
Iredell County 10
Wilson County 8
Anson County 7
Currituck County 7
Davidson County 7
Franklin County 7
Granville County 7
Lee County 7
Wilkes County 7
Columbus County 6
Moore County 6
Cleveland County 5
Halifax County 5
Henderson County 5
Pasquotank County 5
Richmond County 5
Brunswick County 4
Caldwell County 4
Catawba County 4
Rutherford County 4
Scotland County 4
Carteret County 3
Davie County 3
McDowell County 3
Northampton County 3
Pender County 3
Stokes County 3
Avery County 2
Beaufort County 2
Caswell County 2
Cherokee County 2
Jones County 2
Madison County 2
Person County 2
Sampson County 2
Vance County 2
Warren County 2
Chatham County 1
Chowan County 1
Clay County 1
Dare County 1
Hertford County 1
Montgomery County 1
Orange County 1
Transylvania County 1
Yadkin County 1
Grand Total 1216
Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.