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NC’s new voucher plan could upend state’s approach to public education

 Students at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School in Charlotte in spring 2021. It's one of the private schools eligible for North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarships.
Ann Doss Helms
Students at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School in Charlotte in spring 2021. It's one of the private schools eligible for North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarships.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

A pair of matching voucher bills in the state House and Senate signal a shift in the way North Carolina pays for public education. Both are titled “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future,” and they’d remove income restrictions on receiving public money to pay private school tuition.

Passage is virtually certain, given the bills’ powerful sponsors in a General Assembly with a veto-proof Republican majority. Once that happens, anyone becomes eligible for an Opportunity Scholarship to pay private-school tuition and fees. The program was introduced almost a decade ago as a way to help low-income families find alternatives to low-performing public schools.

America’s tension between individual rights and community responsibility is playing out on many fronts these days. For most of my lifetime, public education has been one of the core commitments with support across the spectrum. We might argue over parental accountability, but we agreed that public schools should offer opportunity for all children.

The idea that public money should follow the student — “funding students instead of systems,” as the bill’s backers put it — is a big step toward recasting that framework. Supporters say scholarships to private schools open new options for kids to thrive with public support. Detractors will see this as a huge step toward dismantling public schools, potentially leaving them as something of a charity option.

The bills tie the subsidies to the state’s average per-pupil spending and eligibility for federal lunch subsidies. Using the best current numbers I could find, that means a family of four earning up to $55,500 a year — the cutoff for lunch aid — would qualify for a full per-pupil share of public education funding, around $7,400. As income rises the amount drops, capping out at 450% of lunch eligibility. That’s roughly $250,000 a year. Beyond that point a family is eligible to get 45% of the per-pupil spending average, or about $3,300.

Charlotte’s most prestigious private schools, such as Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Latin and Providence Day, cost more than $25,000 a year. For executives and professionals paying those rates, a $3,300 scholarship would be a drop in the bucket. For families with modest income and the ability to find a lower-cost option and meet the requirements — probably including providing transportation to and from school — an Opportunity Scholarship could be a game-changer. And for those who can’t make it all work, well, there are always public schools.

It’s worth noting that while we have numerous accountability standards for public schools, there’s zero accountability for private schools, even when taxpayer money is used to send students there. Public schools serving the most disadvantaged students tend to be labeled failing. Private schools are free to market as they choose.

North Carolina lawmakers have long used an unusual funding formula for Opportunity Scholarships, with significant annual spending bumps built into the budget, regardless of demand or results. For 2023-24, the spending is already scheduled to jump from about $95 million to $176.5 million. The Choose Your School bills start escalating the allocation even faster beginning in 2025. By 2032 the state will be locked into spending more than $500 million a year for private-school subsidies.

By comparison, the state currently spends more than $11 billion a year on K-12 education.

Charlotte-area lawmakers are playing a starring role in this plan. Lead sponsors of the state House bill introduced last week, all Republicans, are House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County, Rep. David Willis of Union County, Rep. Donnie Loftis of Gaston County … and Mecklenburg County’s Rep. Tricia Cotham, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools educator whose recent switch from Democrat to Republican gave the GOP a veto-proof supermajority.

The state Senate bill was introduced late last month by Senate leader Phil Berger and is sponsored by the Senate’s education chairs — again, all Republicans. The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill at 11 a.m. Wednesday; a streaming link will be on the General Assembly's web page.

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Gaston County joins the superintendent search club

CMS board Chair Elyse Dashew has talked about finding a superintendent who will stay for 10 years. Meanwhile, Gaston County Schools just lost one who nearly made that milestone.

Superintendent Jeff Booker told his board last Monday that he’ll depart at the end of this school year. He has worked for the district since 2009 and became superintendent in late 2013. His four-page resignation letter, presented in closed session at last Monday’s board meeting, itemizes his accomplishments in the job but says nothing about his reasons for leaving or his plan for the future. A news release posted the following day says Booker recently turned 60 and is ready to “transition to a new career opportunity.”

Booker’s letter does talk about public education “at a critical crossroads.”

“There are many challenges facing Gaston County Schools, other school systems, and the general direction of public schools,” Booker wrote. “The politicization of education; increased competition; disparities in socioeconomics; a testing/accountability model that does not reflect student achievement accurately; and regulations, laws and rules that seem to hinder, not help schools are just a few of the issues that need attention sooner than later in order to maintain public education as we know it and ensure that it has a bright future.”

No mention is made of the district’s high-profile problems with a payroll system that launched in January 2022. Booker mostly maintained public silence in the face of teacher protests and a lawsuit, allowing his chief financial officer to provide updates on the district’s slow struggle to get paychecks and benefits straightened out.

I asked board Chair Jeff Ramsey whether the board encouraged Booker to leave and whether Booker has a new job. Ramsey said that’s a personnel matter he can’t talk about. I haven’t reached Booker yet. Meanwhile, communications chief Todd Hagans says there is no severance agreement.

From education reporter to policy adviser

Alex Granados, who spent more than eight years covering education for Education NC before leaving this month, has a new job: Special adviser on academic policy and research to state Superintendent Catherine Truitt. It will be interesting to see how his journalistic insights inform the course of education.

Ending on a bright note …

 Students taking part in Communities in Schools support programs celebrated their coming graduation on Friday.
May Johnston
Communities in Schools
Students taking part in Communities in Schools support programs celebrated their coming graduation on Friday.

Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg celebrated about 400 seniors from 10 CMS high schools who are on track to graduate after taking part in the group’s support programs. CIS works with students who face challenges that could derail them — and for the Class of 2023, that included pandemic school closings that disrupted their high school experience. Friday’s shindig at the Oasis Shrine Auditorium marked the return of the group’s year-end festivities.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.