School vouchers up in the air due to injunction

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Feb 25, 2014
Photo by: File photo Students at Haywood Christian Academy deliver a presentation in honor of Veteran's Day last November.

The Feb. 25 deadline for North Carolina’s opportunity scholarships, also known as school vouchers, may be extended or not implemented at all now that legal complications have delayed the program from moving forward.

Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood suspended North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program on Friday, pending a final resolution of two lawsuits currently before him.

According to the North Carolina Justice Center, Hobgood found that a failure to grant the injunction could cause irreparable harm. In addition, Hopgood believes that a lawsuit filed by the Justice Center and allied groups was likely to succeed on its merits, supporting the need for an injunction halting the program.

Hobgood's ruling prevents the state from holding a lottery next month to award about 2,400 vouchers for the 2014-15 school year.

Earlier last week, two lawsuits challenging the state's school voucher law were permitted by Hobgood, who denied the state's motions to dismiss the cases on the basis that they lacked merit.

The North Carolina General Assembly authorized the mechanism to provide public funds for private education last year. NC State Education Assistance Authority was moving forward with the program in the face of the lawsuits. Currently, more than 4,700 applications for vouchers received, said Elizabeth McDuffie, director of grants, training and outreach with the authority.

Most parents have identified the private schools they want their children to attend, and the top choices were religious schools. The Greensboro Islamic Academy was selected in 158 applications, Victory Christian Center School in Charlotte was the choice for 87 applicants and Al-Iman School in Raleigh was requested in 77 applications.

Attorneys for parties opposing the voucher program argued the state constitution required funds for purposes of public education be used exclusively for free public schools,

But the state claims that only funds specifically earmarked for public education must be spent “exclusively” for free public schools.

State attorneys say the General Assembly lawfully appropriated $10 million from the General Fund from the program — funds that were not set aside for public education, but rather a new allotment for a new program.

Attorneys challenging the program also argued that taxpayers would be affected if the unconstitutional program proceeded and the taxpayer funds could not be recovered.

Voucher eligibility

According to McDuffie, nearly 700 private schools in North Carolina are eligible for the scholarship, some accredited and others not.

If the program eventually moves forward, North Carolina will be allowing taxpayer funds to go to private schools, many of which are religious institutions. The $10 million set aside for vouchers was to be parceled out to eligible families, up to a maximum of $4,200 per student.

According to the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, the entity tasked with administering the Opportunity Scholarship Program, about 2,400 taxpayer-funded school vouchers are available to North Carolina students for use at private schools.

The voucher scholarships must not exceed the actual cost of tuition and fees. Families eligible cannot have incomes that exceed 133 percent of the federal poverty level, at least for the first year.

To be eligible for the voucher, a student must live in a household that meets 100 percent of free and reduced lunch qualifications. In addition, eligible students must be a full-time student who has not graduated and has attended a public school during the 2014 spring semester.

Even though some applicants did not meet the eligibility criteria for the scholarship, the number of eligible applicants has exceeded the number of vouchers up for grabs, McDuffie said.

“We will use a random selection process (lottery) to select recipients from the applications that meet the eligibility requirements,” McDuffie said.

Private schools also have to meet a set of requirements 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 with an annual written report of the student’s progress and promise to administer a nationally standardized test once a year.

Private school potential

Blake Stanbery, headmaster at Haywood Christian Academy, predicts that the Opportunity Scholarships will truly provide opportunities for some students from low-income families.

“I’m very positive about it because I do know of families who would like to be here but can’t afford it — even with our tuition assistance program,” Stanbery said.

The tuition assistance plan at HCA provides a total of about $40,000 per year to help subsidize tuition for students. Tutition costs at HCA ranges from $4,675 to $5,540, so a $4,200 scholarship could make a real difference for students who qualify, Stanbery said.

“Perhaps this would be the difference maker,” Stanbery said about the vouchers.

Currently, 121 students are enrolled at HCA, but has potential to grow with a capacity of 180, Stanbery said.

“I’m about numbers,” Stanbery said. “I’d like to have more impact, not just to say we’re bigger, but more influence.”

Voucher concerns

If private schools receive school voucher funds, they will be subject to minimal criteria to comply with state laws and will be offering assessment tests that don’t measure up to what the public school system uses to assess student learning gains.

This raises questions about how to ensure that private schools receiving taxpayer funds will provide high-quality educational experiences and be accountable for both their successes and failures.

“That’s where I have some concerns,” Stanbery said. “There’s not a lot of accountability. As an accredited school, we’ve had to strive for excellence. I think that’s worthy of tax dollars.”

Stanbery admitted that he was disappointed the legislation for opportunity scholarships didn’t require stricter criteria for private schools to be eligible for vouchers.

“We should be good stewards with our tax dollars,” he said. “If we reallocate or redirect funds, we should direct it to schools to schools that are accredited.”

However, Stanbery said just because a student qualified for a voucher didn’t mean they would be accepted into HCA. Potential students will still have to undergo a screening, an assessment and an interview, as well as qualify academically, he said.

Voucher support

Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is one of North Carolina’s leading advocates for educational freedom. Its North Carolina state director, John Dudley, said he was disappointed with Hobgood’s decision.

It is disappointing that a lawsuit from a special interest group – with a vested financial interest in preventing parents having educational freedom – will prevent thousands of children from attending the school of their parents’ choice in the fall,” Dudley noted in a release. “This lawsuit is true demagoguery from a special interest group. The fact that the program will only issue 2,400 scholarships, but already has more than 4,000 applicants, shows the demand that families have for more educational freedom in North Carolina.”

The Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina organization is also frustrated with the voucher suspension.

“While we respect the court’s decision, we are deeply disappointed on behalf of the thousands of working-class families who desired this educational option. These low-income families qualified for this program; these low-income families applied for this program; but these low-income families were wrongfully denied this program,” Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, noted in a press release.