As more of the state’s school districts sign on to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of private school vouchers, the Ashe County Board of Education has so far decided against joining, but has left the possibility open.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program, passed by the General Assembly and set to go into effect on Feb. 1, grants a $4,200 scholarship for low-income students to attend private or charter schools.
“We are against the legislation on this,” Dr. Todd Holden, Ashe County Public Schools superintendent said. “They are using taxpayer dollars to fund children going to a private institution that has no, or very little, accountability.”
Holden said private schools in state are held to different standard than public schools. For instance, while all public school teachers are required to be licensed, “each individual non-public school establishes its own qualifications for its faculty and administrative staff,” according to the N.C. Department of Non-public Education.
The issue of accountability is just one of the reasons the two groups filing the lawsuit, the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) and the N.C. Justice Center (NCJC), say the voucher program is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit says the voucher law violates Article IX, Section 6 of the N.C. Constitution, which says public funds for education “shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
To date, approximately 40 out of 115 of North Carolina’s local education agencies (LEAs) have signed on to the lawsuit, including Catawba, Surry and Yancey counties.
Holden said there is hesitation on the part of Ashe BOE to sign on to the lawsuit, despite the unanimous consensus that the Opportunity Scholarship Program is harmful to public education.
“We could get negative push-back from the parties that be who are in power,” Holden said of the pro-voucher legislators in Raleigh.
Pro-voucher groups, such as Parents for Educational Freedom in N.C., point to achievement gaps that exist between “white, African American, Hispanic, and wealthier/poor students” in the state and view the vouchers as an equalizer to accessing the best educational opportunities.
Holden said his concern is the program does just the opposite, allowing only wealthier parents access to private and charter schools because the $4,200 voucher is simply a discount.
“This legislation is creating segregation again, but instead of racial segregation, it’s economic segregation,” Holden said. “The $4,200 is just a discount, it won’t pay for a private education.”
The cost of tuition at a “high quality” private school can be upwards of $20,000, according to the N.C. Justice Center.
“The quality of private schools is closely tied to the amount of tuition they charge, so the majority of voucher participants will only be able to attend the most inexpensive and lowest quality private schools,” accoriding to a document from the N.C. Justice Center.
Some voucher supporters, such as Ashe County home-school parent Dr. Anne Wright, who recently participated in a panel on education hosted by Senator Dan Soucek, believe that the value of vouchers is the choice it opens up to parents.
“Nobody knows what a child needs better than a parent,” she said. “If there is a school that meets the needs of the child better than the public school, and there are simple and low cost ways that the state can help, I think it’s excellent to put these decisions back in the hands of the parent.”
Holden said he agrees that N.C. charter schools began with the best of intentions, but the consequences have been harmful.
“The concept of a charter school has deviated from what it was meant to do,” he said. “Charters were set up to provide specialty education for alternative learners, but they have since become money making opportunities.”
Charter schools are funded for every student who enrolls for the first two months of school. If the student decides to return to public school, or the school decides to return the student to public school during the year, the funding does not follow, Holden said.
The N.C. Justice Center reports the state’s voucher program will take $11 million from the public school system during its first year of operation, and up to $13 million every year after.
Tonya Blevins, an Exception Children educator at Blue Ridge Elementary School and Ashe County Association of Educators president said her concern is the effect the loss of funding will have on her students.
“I feel as a public educator that every time you take funding away from public schools, you’re hurting a vast majority of children in North Carolina,” Blevins said. “That’s what it all comes down to. What are we doing to our children?”
Both Holden and Blevins credit the Ashe County Board of Education and the Ashe County Commissioners with replacing funding lost at the state level and offering continued support to county schools.
“We’ve been very blessed, but I don’t think that can go on forever,” Blevins said. “The Board (of Education) and Commissioners have done their best to supplement our losses, but I don’t think it’s going to get better. As teachers, we have to be very educated about what this legislation means for us, and let legislators know the effect and we have to make our voices heard in Raleigh.”
Holden said increased involvement from educators in the democratic process will help to raise awareness of local school system’s opposition to the Opportunity Scholarship Program. He is continuing to discuss the NCAE/NCJC lawsuit with the BOE and said they will re-evaluate at the next board meeting.
Senator Soucek, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee and supporter of public charter schools, did not return requests for comment. Attempts to contact a regional representative for Parents for Educational Freedom in N.C. were also unsuccessful.
Christina Day may be reached at 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @cdayinwj