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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.

State vouchers expand, and one Charlotte school remains elusive

A look at 709 Northeast Drive in Davidson, which is listed as the physical location for TAS Academy.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
A look at 709 Northeast Drive in Davidson, which is listed as the physical location for TAS Academy.

As expected, the number of students getting public money to attend private schools through North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program has surged this year, after the General Assembly increased funding and opened it to families of all income levels.

As part of my reporting last year, I found records for one school in Mecklenburg County receiving the scholarships, but couldn’t find the physical school. Six months later, Teaching Achieving Students Academy still receives state money and I still can’t find it.

I think it’s important to look at how effectively the state keeps tabs on the money it hands out (keep reading for more on that). But it’s also worth remembering that the Opportunity Scholarship program is much bigger than the handful of families who may be sending their kids to any one school.

The agency that distributes the scholarships, often referred to as vouchers, posted midyear data that shows 32,341 students are receiving scholarships this year, including 2,140 from Mecklenburg County and about 5,900 in the Charlotte region. That’s a 26% increase statewide and regionally.

The dollar increase isn’t available yet, because second-semester scholarships are still being sent to participating schools. Last year the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority reported providing almost $135 million in scholarships. So far this year the tally has hit $95 million.

Teaching Achieving Students Academy, also known as TAS Academy, has received $42,000 in Opportunity Scholarship money so far for the current school year, bringing the total over the last 10 years to almost $483,000.

Six addresses but no clear location

A bit of background: In June, Kris Nordstrom of the N.C. Justice Center posted a report comparing numbers from two state databases: Private school enrollment tallies and voucher recipients. He found several schools that appeared to have more scholarships than students. TAS Academy showed a particularly large gap: One database shows it had 13 students in 2021-22 but the other database listed it as having 22 scholarship recipients that year.

Nordstrom hadn’t contacted the school for an explanation, and I thought I’d do so. But reaching anyone from the school proved so challenging that I ended up driving to four addresses in Charlotte that turned up on various searches. None appeared to be the site of TAS Academy, though a private school on North Graham Street, Charlotte Leadership Academy, eventually said it was leasing a classroom to TAS headmistress Fanisha Locke, who’s also known as Fanisha Cowan. But in August a co-founder of Charlotte Leadership Academy said he had evicted her because he didn’t want questions about TAS Academy tainting the reputation of his school, which also receives public money. TAS Academy’s website was briefly deactivated and it looked like the school had closed.

But this school year it opened with two new addresses listed in the state’s private school directory: 709 Northeast Drive in Davidson, which is listed as the physical location, and an address on Cook Street in Concord. Julia Hegele, communications director for the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education, says that in August the school, which reports having 13 K-8 students, changed its address from Concord to Davidson and submitted fire and safety inspections for 709 Northeast Drive. Interestingly, the private school directory also lists Adaptive Learning Academy, a private school for students with disabilities, at the same address, which is a six-unit building in Spinnaker Reach at Davidson Landing East. Adaptive Learning is not listed as a voucher recipient.

The map that comes up when you click on the address/location given on TAS Academy's Facebook page.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE

The map that comes up when you click on the address/location given on TAS Academy's Facebook page.

A renewed search

I visited the Davidson address around noon on Jan. 16, a Tuesday when it seemed likely that school would be in session. I checked all three floors and found signs for counselors and therapists, a wellness center, a wealth advisor and a real estate agent — but no school. Nor could I see or hear anything indicating that a group of children was present.

I visited the Concord address as well. It’s a home, not a school. The man who answered the door said he’s familiar with TAS Academy and it’s in Charlotte, not Davidson or Concord.

In September TAS Academy updated the location on its Facebook page, which says that the school uses “various learning approaches and venues.” It says “Davidson” without listing a street address. If you click the location it drops a pin at the intersection of University City Boulevard and Suther Road, across the street from UNC Charlotte. That’s Rush student housing, one of the locations I checked during the summer. In July, Locke told me that was a previous location for her school before Rush was built. (Since school started this year the Facebook page has added photos and video of kids reciting Bible verses and taking part in community service projects, a certificate saying TAS Academy has been chartered for membership in the national Beta Club and pictures of an empty office decorated for a holiday party. But there’s nothing that depicts a group of students in a classroom setting.)

To confuse things further, the school’s webpage still lists the Graham Street location.

Rush Student Living occupies the address given on TAS Academy's Facebook page.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Rush Student Living occupies the address given on TAS Academy's Facebook page.

Little clarity from school leaders

When I started looking for TAS Academy, I assumed the problem was a small school that didn’t have a great web presence or communication skills. But at this point I was blunt with both TAS and state officials: It looks like North Carolina is writing checks to a school that doesn’t exist. Can you show me I’m wrong?

The phone number listed for TAS Academy is the one I used to reach Locke last year. She’s still in my contacts, but when I called this time she told me I had the wrong number. When I persisted, she asked what she could help me with. I described my latest round of futile efforts to find her new address.

“Everything’s been rectified and I thank you for everything that you’ve done,” she said. “Everything is updated in the system.”

But why couldn’t I find a school or students?

“I have no idea,” Locke said. “We’ve merged with another school. But everything is updated and on the website. So thank you.”

The call was over within 90 seconds.

I followed up with an email to Jennifer Lewis, who was added as the school’s official contact last year. Her role has never been clear to me. She replied by email on Jan. 22, also emphasizing that the school’s paperwork had been updated and submitted to the state.

“Your title states education reporter and if I am being honest, it doesn't seem like you are too concerned with student progress, learning styles, Spanish, Sign language, End of year field trips or data that supports academic growth. It seems you are more concerned with location and the opportunity scholarship program overall,” she added.

I replied that I’d be happy to report in more depth: “It still strikes me as strange that it's so hard to find a school. But tell me where it is and let's meet there to talk about it. I can get some photos, maybe talk to a parent or two and report on what TAS is doing.”

Lewis has not responded.

Meeting state requirements?

Meanwhile, Hegele tells me TAS Academy has met the statutory requirements for being listed in the Department of Non-Public Education’s directory. “It should be noted that the statutes governing Opportunity Scholarships are separate and apart from those pertaining to DNPE. NCSEAA conducts their own verification measures regarding recipients,” she wrote.

I also looped back to the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, which had told me last year that TAS Academy met the requirements for receiving vouchers. I detailed my latest unsuccessful efforts to find the school. State law attaches very few strings to voucher money — GOP leaders have said parental choice is the ultimate form of accountability — and applications for scholarships come from parents, so presumably someone has filed applications designating TAS as the recipient. But, I asked, “Do you have any evidence that the money you're sending is going to an actual school? Can you have a private school without a physical location? Have you verified that TAS Academy has enrolled students who are not attending school elsewhere?“

Communications Director Kathy Hastings replied last week that “we rely on the Division of Non-Public Education who has the statutory responsibility to ensure a school’s location meets its requirements.” However, she added, “SEAA continues to review available information to determine whether (TAS Academy) is meeting the program requirements.”

TAS Academy is not the norm

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on one tiny school because it raises questions about accountability. Anytime you turn on a spigot of public money, someone will try to take advantage. And the Opportunity Scholarship spigot is gushing: $176.5 million allotted for the current school year, with annual increases until the total tops $500 million in 2031.

But I don’t want to imply that TAS Academy is representative of all schools getting public funds. I’ve browsed the websites for the 60 Mecklenburg schools participating in the voucher program. Some are new and/or tiny, including a K-12 “microschool” that had six students last year. But others have more than 1,000 students and have been open for decades.

A few list annual tuition near or below the maximum Opportunity Scholarship payment of $7,468 (the payment can be lower based on family income, though everyone is now eligible for at least $3,360). Other schools charge more than $20,000.

The majority (including TAS Academy) are religious. That includes Mecklenburg’s many Catholic schools as well as Islamic, Jewish, Baptist, Episcopalian, Adventist and nondenominational Christian schools. Some of those websites emphasize teaching a biblical worldview, while others talk mostly about preparation for college.

Several of the schools taking Opportunity Scholarship students offer specialized programs for students with learning disabilities, including one that caters to students who are both gifted and have disabilities. There are several Montessori schools; one that serves refugee, immigrant and at-risk students; and one that has a mission to “name and disrupt racism, classism, ageism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression.”

Depending on your perspective, that’s either a wonderful menu of options or a colossal diversion of money from public schools. I hope to learn more about some of these schools in the next few months, so stay tuned.

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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.