State lawmakers created a school voucher scheme in 2013 as part of the state budget, setting up “opportunity scholarships” of $4,200 that 2,400 children from low-income families could use to pay for tuition at completely unaccountable private or religious schools.
Some of the supporters of allowing public dollars to pay for private education justified it by considering it a pilot program with a limited number of students and public money—$10 million set aside in last year’s budget.
But voucher advocates, led by the misnamed and well-funded right-wing group Parents for Educational Freedom, worked hard in the last year to convince parents with children in public schools to apply for the vouchers and more than 5,500 did, twice the number of slots available for funding. A lottery is scheduled for later this month to draw the names of the 2,400 applicants who will receive vouchers for this fall.
But the lottery may not be held. The voucher scheme may expand.
Tuesday House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger appeared at an event held by Parents for Educational Freedom held to urge lawmakers to find additional money in the budget to fund vouchers for all the students who applied, which would take at least another $8 million.
So much for the pilot, but it is not a surprise. The goal of creating the voucher scheme last session was not to see how a limited number of students using a limited amount of public dollars would fare in the voucher program.
The goal was to begin the systematic dismantling of public education by transferring public dollars to private academies.
Rep. Paul Stam, the chief architect of the voucher scheme, told a meeting of Americans for Prosperity in 2011 that his aim was to dramatically expand the program to provide vouchers to all students currently in private schools once the state economy recovered.
Then it’s not much of a leap to make vouchers available to every student that they could use any way they wanted with no accountability on what kinds of schools the public funds or what kind of education is being paid for with taxpayer money.
Close to 700 private and religious schools are currently eligible to receive public support through the vouchers scheme already in place.
There is no minimum number of students a school must have enrolled, no qualifications that teachers must have, no restrictions on the curriculum that is taught, even no prohibitions on discrimination.
Schools can openly ban gay or lesbian students from attending for example, and some do.
Lindsay Wagner of NC Policy Watch reported last year that Paramount Christian Academy in Davidson County is on the list of voucher-eligible schools. Paramount has three students and one teacher and the school meets in a room in a private home, functioning more as a home school than a private academy.
Paramount also uses fundamentalist textbooks that teach students that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that gay people have no more claims to civil rights than child molesters or rapists.
More than 83 voucher-eligible schools have fewer than 10 students, many with only one or two teachers. Many of the schools use the same textbooks as Paramount that distort history and demonize groups of people.
All that is apparently fine under the voucher scheme that Berger and Tillis and Stam are rushing to expand. They seem unconcerned that taxpayers are funding substandard and even offensive education for thousands of children.
They preach tough standards and accountability for the public schools they chronically underfund. But when it comes to using public money for their privatization agenda, anything goes.
Parents for Educational Freedom and lawmakers like Rep. Stam also often claim that their push for vouchers is to help low-income students succeed in school. But if that was their goal, they wouldn’t fire teacher assistants in public schools or oppose anti-poverty programs like the state Earned Income Tax Credit.
The goal is not to help low-income children. The goal is to dismantle traditional public schools. That’s what’s behind this latest call to expand the voucher scheme. It’s as predictable as it is troubling as the crusade against public education continues in Raleigh.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive think tank affiliated with the North Carolina Justice Center.