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State lawmakers are currently pushing for a massive expansion of a program that provides public money to pay private school tuition. Critics say the move is devastating to public education. Furthermore, a report on discrepancies in program data led to a recent acknowledgment that at least one school collected state money for students who weren’t enrolled.

Charlotte’s elusive voucher school: Some answers and lingering questions

 Teaching Achieving Students Academy
Ann Doss Helms
Teaching Achieving Students Academy leases a classroom from Charlotte Leadership Academy on North Graham Street. Both receive public money through vouchers.

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.

About a month ago, I went in search of a small private school in Charlotte that has received more than $400,000 in public money to cover students’ tuition. I failed to locate it, even after scouring the internet, checking four possible addresses and playing phone tag with the headmistress. Based on the lack of current information on the school’s website, I suspected it had closed.

But last week I found it … more or less. Teaching Achieving Students Academy is operating out of a leased classroom in another private school on North Graham Street. It’s taking applications for this fall, and the state says it’s cleared to keep receiving Opportunity Scholarships.

This all started with the General Assembly’s vote to dramatically expand the state’s voucher program. A bill that’s expected to be incorporated into the budget would open the taxpayer-funded scholarships to families at all income levels and increase the money available from almost $95 million in the year that just ended to more than $500 million a year by 2031. That prompted Kris Nordstrom of the North Carolina Justice Center, a voucher opponent, to scour data on voucher payments and private school enrollment in an attempt to demonstrate that public money is going to some schools that are “fly-by-night” operations — and potentially committing fraud.

I learned that one of the schools he highlighted, in Johnston County outside Raleigh, had indeed been removed from the scholarship program when state officials determined that it was inaccurately reporting enrollment and getting money it was not entitled to.

I set out to learn more about Teaching Achieving Students in Charlotte, which was listed as having 22 scholarship recipients in 2021-22, while data reported by a different state agency said it had only 13 students that year. I found four potential addresses on state documents and other websites, but none checked out (the school’s webpage listed no location). I also tried to reach the head of school, who was listed as Fanisha Cowan on the school’s website and Fanisha Locke on Facebook.

More twists in the search

After that appeared someone alerted me to the fact that Fanisha Locke, of Charlotte, had been charged last summer with providing contraband to an inmate in the Alexander County Detention Center, a felony (the case is scheduled to go to court in August). The home address on the arrest report matched one of the addresses listed in state records for Teaching Achieving Students, and Locke’s employer was listed as TAS Academy at 9200 University Blvd. That’s the address for Rush student housing at UNC Charlotte — a fifth dead end on finding the school.

 Fanisha Locke at a desk
Ann Doss Helms
Fanisha Cowan, headmistress of Teaching Achieving Students Academy.

Meanwhile, the state agency that oversees distribution of Opportunity Scholarships informed me on July 17 that the Teaching Achieving Students leader who had undergone a criminal background check, as required by state law, was not Cowan/Locke but someone named Jennifer Lewis. The agency provided an email address for Lewis and a phone number for the school, which is also Locke’s phone.

Last week I received an email response from Lewis. “Our SOP is to point all external sources in need of information about our institution to the follow (sic) resources,” it said. One link was to the school’s website, which has been updated to say it’s taking enrollment for 2023-24. There’s also a new “location” link, giving the address as 2723 N. Graham St. Another link in the email took me to an updated directory of North Carolina private schools. That also lists the Graham Street address, and the administrator’s name was changed from Fanisha Cowan to Fanisha Locke.

The Graham Street address was one of the four I’d checked earlier in the month. It’s listed as Charlotte Leadership Academy, a private school that also participates in the Opportunity Scholarship program. One of that school’s two administrators, Ryan Saunders, told me he wasn’t familiar with Teaching Achieving Students and no other school shared the space.

I drove to the address last week and found three women supervising some children playing outside. They said they were with Charlotte Leadership Academy, and none of them recognized the name Teaching Achieving Students Academy. Nor was there a sign for that school on the building. But one of the women recognized the name of “Ms. Fanisha,” saying she teaches kids in the Leadership Academy building.

Soon after that, Fanisha Locke called me. We spoke for five minutes, the longest and most substantive conversation I’ve had with her in multiple attempts. She said for three years her school has shared space with Charlotte Leadership Academy. The University Boulevard address on the arrest report was a former location for her school, she told me. But she wouldn’t talk further about the case and didn’t explain why she had given that address.

Locke ended the conversation. She declined to talk about the number of students and teachers she expects to have when classes begin in the fall. Nor would she describe Jennifer Lewis’ role. As for whether the school will continue getting the public scholarships, “I have no idea,” she said. But the state says it remains eligible.

Finally, I reached Doan Clark, the other administrator of Charlotte Leadership Academy. She confirmed that Locke subleases a classroom and has used it during the school year for about three years.

This message replaced the Teaching Achieving Students Academy web site on Monday.
This message replaced the Teaching Achieving Students Academy web site on Monday.

And a final twist: After this newsletter came out Monday, the TAS Academy website was taken down. It now leads to a page offering the domain name on GoDaddy or a notice that "This site can't be reached: www.tasacademyedu.org unexpectedly closed the connection."

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A better option for kids?

Charlotte Leadership Academy and Teaching Achieving Students Academy sit next door to Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Druid Hills Academy, a high-poverty pre-K-8 school that’s rated F on the state’s school performance report card. In 2022, the most recent data that’s available, 5.8% of Druid Hills students passed the state’s math exam and 11.5% passed reading.

The Opportunity Scholarship program was created to give low-income families alternatives to schools like Druid Hills. But can children get a better education at the private schools next door?

That’s hard to say. Druid Hills, like all North Carolina public schools, is required to report test scores, teacher experience and credentials, and data on discipline, chronic absenteeism and finances. Teaching Achieving Students Academy illustrates just how little publicly-subsidized private schools must disclose.

As far as Republican leaders in the General Assembly are concerned, if parents prefer the private alternative, that’s all the accountability that’s needed to let students take their public “backpack funding” to a voucher-approved private school. And if the families decide that’s not working, they can always return to public schools — which will be held accountable for those students’ success or failure.

Education Education
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.