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Stop abandoning NC public schools

When a state is one of only a handful adopting significant education legislation, that’s a good thing, right? Well, in the case of school voucher law, it isn’t.

North Carolina is one of only 14 states and the District of Columbia with a school voucher law that allows qualifying students to receive an Opportunity Scholarship of up to $4,200 to attend a private school — including non-secular schools.

While the majority of states have rejected voucher laws on the basis of separation of church and state, the Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled in a 4-3 split along party lines that public tax dollars could be used to help children attend private and religious schools. Supporters of school vouchers believe that such a program will increase competition among schools and thus raise achievement. In addition, they defend vouchers as providing school choice for low-income families.

However, North Carolina’s education history following Brown v. Board of Education reveals striking similarities between NC Opportunity Scholarships and the Education Expense Grants enacted in 1956 by the NC General Assembly (The Pearsall Plan). The Pearsall plan provided public funds to any student not wishing to attend school with children of another race. The concern with the more recent school voucher programs, like NC’s Opportunity Scholarship, is that they contribute to the resegregation of our public schools and the dismantlement of public education altogether.

North Carolina spent $4.6 million on opportunity scholarships in 2014-15 for the 1,216 students who received the scholarships. Funding for the program will increase from $17.6 million in 2015-16 to $24.8 million for 2016-17, ensuring that many more students will leave N.C.’s public education system for a private school.

In addition, the low-income threshold to qualify for the scholarship has been raised from $43,000 for a family of four to just under $60,000. These moves demonstrate the intent of state legislators to expand the voucher program to even more families.

One assumption supporters of the NC Opportunity Scholarship program make is that private schools provide a better education than public schools. A study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that after adjusting for selected student characteristics, no significant difference in grade four reading and grade eight math scores were found between public and private schools. In grade four math, the adjusted school mean was significantly higher for public schools. Only in grade eight reading did private schools have a higher school mean than public schools.

The Children’s Law Clinic at Duke University published a report (pdf) detailing the characteristics of private schools in N.C. Seventy percent of private schools in the state are religious, which significantly increases the likelihood that voucher recipients will attend a nonsectarian school, especially since these schools are also more likely to have tuition equal to or less than the voucher amount.

Thirty-one percent of North Carolina’s counties have one or no private schools, indicating that students living in the state’s poorest counties are not geographically positioned to benefit from the voucher program — even though the program was designed to benefit these children. In addition, the state curriculum is only followed in 25 percent of private schools and 30 percent employ only certified teachers and are accredited.

As North Carolinians, we must advocate for a free and appropriate education for ALL children, not just the select few who are selected by lottery to receive vouchers or to attend a charter school. All parents should commit to public education, as it is the one institution that binds us and unifies our diverse population. Our legislators should stop establishing policies that incentivize the abandonment of our public schools and start using a collective voice to enact policies that strengthen them.

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