I’ll Vouch for Public Schools

The development and expansion of the school voucher program.

Nelda Holder, photo by Tim Barnwell
Nelda Holder
Photo: Tim Barnwell
Legislative News by Nelda Holder –

The news network in North Carolina—including such “personal news” channels as the ubiquitous Facebook, as well as plain old neighborhood gossip—has been abuzz recently over a Republican leadership plan at the Statehouse to increase the state’s controversial “Opportunity Scholarship” funding by sending roughly half a billion more dollars (with more to come) directly to the state’s school voucher program.

And it isn’t just the money that so many—all the way up to Gov. Roy Cooper (D)—are questioning. The plan rushed into place by the Republican leadership would change the current voucher program to eliminate income requirements for families choosing to use the “free” tuition money. That would accommodate paying for more children to go to private schools—which are held to few standards by the state. And it would offer a nice kickback to families whose finances already allow them to pay for private school tuition. Finally, all of this would take even more money away from our state’s malnourished public schools.

Ultimately, that means that if the companion bills SB 406 (Choose Your School, Choose Your Future) and HB 823 (Eliminate School Choice Program Waitlists) pass—and they’re certainly well on their way—a lot of investment that could have been dedicated to our struggling public school system will fly right off the legislative dome.

Show us the money

Oddly, this rush to expenditure followed an announcement by the Office of State Budget and Management—just before the legislature’s April 24 opening of the session—that the state could expect a $1 billion plus surplus for the 2024-25 budget.

Never mind that such a windfall could begin to address the fact that, according to a recent posting by the nearly 40-year-old, nonpartisan Public School Forum of North Carolina, currently “over one-third of our educators earn less than a livable wage,” and at the start of the current school year, there were “2,840 vacancies in K-12 teaching positions … and another 744 vacant exceptional children teaching position.”

That’s just for starters, and I’d suggest you prowl around the NC Forum website (ncforum.org) and acquaint yourself further with both our public school needs and with the state’s “universal voucher program.” We’ve presented current investigative reporting and statistics on the voucher concept before in this column. The hard investigative information and resulting conclusions do not change. If we want—as a state of approximately ten-and-a-half million residents—to turn our backs on the needs of our public schools, the results will not be pretty.

Enter “Public School Emergency”

But don’t just take my word for it. Gov. Cooper (D) has issued a “Public School Emergency” alert. It offers more history on the development and expansion of the voucher program in the state and tracks the dramatic expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program. His summary notes that under the expanded program outline, which includes eliminating an income cap, $4 billion in taxpayer money over the next 10 years will NOT be spent on public schools because of diversion to “unaccountable” private schools.

To make the issue clearer, for every public-school student moving into the private-school voucher program, the public schools lose “$7,500 in state funding to cover various expenses, such as teacher salaries, instructional materials, or transportation.” In the first year, according to NC Forum, “more than $200 million in state funding” will be lost by the public school system.

And how about this little nugget? According to the NC Forum statistics, last year’s $250 million allocation in new funding for vouchers by the General Assembly could have provided our public school system with a 2.6% raise for teachers … or hired 2,100 additional school health personnel (a school nurse in every school!) … or offered a 10% raise to school bus drivers and teaching assistants.

Bottom feeders

If those statistics aren’t enough to turn your head, the governor threw some more on the pile of reasons to be investing in the public education system. He notes there is a “troubling trend” emerging: “North Carolina now ranks near the bottom nationally in K-12 funding.”

Cooper’s statistics:

  • We spend nearly $5,000 less per student than the national average—48th in the nation.
  • No state in America spends less of its Gross State Product on public education than North Carolina. We rank dead last.
  • We rank 46th nationally in beginning teacher pay—worse than Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

“For the last two years North Carolina has ranked first in America in business,” added the governor. “But we can’t continue to be first in business if we become last in education.”

$4 billion over the next decade

Cooper notes that under current proposal, $4 billion in funding over the coming 10 years will be going to “unaccountable and unregulated private schools.” He calls that “the wrong choice.” And he makes these direct points about the difference public/private accountability for public money:

  • Private schools … don’t have to report what they teach, hire licensed teachers, report how their students perform, or say which students they’ll accept.
  • Some school districts will lose up to 8% of their operating revenue to private schools.
  • Taxpayers in many rural counties will have no opportunity to use vouchers because nearly one-fifth of the state’s counties have only one or no private school.

The governor’s conclusion: “That’s not fair.” His own vision would be to use the voucher allocation to “expand access to pre-kindergarten, raise teacher pay, buy school supplies, build high-tech science labs and libraries, and help ensure that our students with disabilities get the education the state constitution guarantees them.”

And it should go without saying, but there are very fine private schools in areas of North Carolina. But I grew up in this state when Gov. Terry Sanford was focused on two enormous things: education—specifically the improvement of public education, and the expansion of civil rights. If you weren’t around to enjoy and be inspired by it, he did things like create the Governor’s School and the School of the Arts—oh, and the community college system. So I’d be all for some more of that share-the-wealth thinking. How about you?

OK, history buffs—here’s your 250th chance

Although some political commentators and some politicians themselves do not speak so reassuringly about the future of our American democracy … plans are decidedly underway to celebrate the first 250 years of this governmental experiment of ours as a nation. So how would you like to see the state of North Carolina’s 2026 commemoration of this major anniversary of the signing of the nation’s Declaration of Independence?

You may officially answer that question by sending your ideas to America’s Semiquincentennial Committee through their current request-for-comment spot on the NC General Assembly website’s “News & Information.” That title is a mouthful, so you may keep up with the planning through their organizing arm, America250. At any rate, this is the Congressionally-appointed body that is working to promote this celebration of and for our country and state.

Meanwhile, when you visit the General Assembly’s website—do poke around. It is a treasure chest of bills filed, hearings scheduled, legislative contacts, and a wealth of other governmental business and history. I’ve bragged about this website (ncleg.gov) as a source for citizen education a number of times. Hats off again!

 


Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts.

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