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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.

Elusive voucher school has a new address in Harrisburg — and students are there

This church in a Harrisburg shopping center is the new location for Teaching Achieving Students Academy, which has changed addresses several times.
Ann Doss Helms
This church in a Harrisburg shopping center is the new location for Teaching Achieving Students Academy, which has changed addresses several times.

WFAE’s Ann Doss Helms spent the last several months looking for a Charlotte-area private school that gets North Carolina Opportunity Scholarships, but didn’t seem to have a location. She was trying to understand how the state keeps tabs on the money it hands out. This week she checked a new address in Harrisburg, and finally found students at work. Here’s what she found:

A Charlotte private school that gets North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship money but didn't seem to have a location lists a new address in Cabarrus County. After checking seven previous addresses for Teaching Achieving Students Academy with no sign of a school, I found a small group of students working at the school’s newest address in Harrisburg.

“We’ve been everywhere that we said we’d be,” the school’s headmistress, who goes by Fanisha Cowan and Fanisha Locke, said Wednesday. She declined to discuss the matter in any detail, saying her students were learning and it wasn’t appropriate to interrupt.

The search for Teaching Achieving Students Academy started in June as an effort to get clarification about a report that indicated the school was getting more Opportunity Scholarships than it had students. Over the past 10 years, the school has gotten almost $483,000 in public voucher money.

Debate over the voucher program escalated this summer when the General Assembly passed a massive expansion. Lawmakers removed most restrictions on who can get the assistance and set aside almost $192 million in public money to pay private school tuition in the coming year.

Searching for a location

Those queries morphed into a quest to figure out whether TAS Academy existed after calls and emails went unanswered and several addresses proved to be dead ends. Using addresses on various records, I found a duplex, a vacant Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools property, a charter school, UNC Charlotte student housing and a different private school. One of the operators of the private school on North Graham Street said TAS Academy wasn’t located there. A different operator later acknowledged leasing a room to Locke, but Locke was evicted shortly afterward.

This building on Northeast Drive in Davidson was listed as the location for TAS Academy during the first semester of this academic year.
Ann Doss Helms
A look at 709 Northeast Drive in Davidson, which is listed as the physical location for TAS Academy.

At the start of this school year, state records showed two new addresses for TAS Academy: A mailing address at a home in Concord and a physical address at a six-unit residential/business building in Spinnaker Reach at Davidson Landing East. Last month, I reported that I couldn’t find a school there, either. At the time, Locke assured me in a brief phone conversation that “everything’s been rectified and everything is updated in the system,” but declined to discuss the school’s location or status further.

After the most recent report appeared, TAS Academy removed all references to Davidson and Concord from state records and added a new address, a shopping center on University City Boulevard, just across the Cabarrus County line in Harrisburg. That led me to Temple of New Beginnings Ministries.

There was no sign for TAS Academy on the building, but behind two unlocked sets of doors, I found a small group of students working quietly at a table with Locke. She quickly moved me back outside, saying, “This is unacceptable. My kids are in the middle of learning.”

At about the same time the state records were updated to reflect the Harrisburg address, the school’s Facebook page removed a reference to the Davidson location. It now pins the location at a different University City Boulevard address in Charlotte, the one that’s student housing. The school’s website still lists the Graham Street address.

The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which administers Opportunity Scholarships, had been looking into TAS Academy's locations after I asked about the addresses that didn't seem to have a school. Thursday morning Communications Director Kathy Hastings reported that the Division of Nonpublic Education, a separate state agency that keeps records on private schools, had confirmed the Harrisburg address. "The school is now in compliance with DNPE," she said.

Accountability debate is broader

The debate over accountability for the Opportunity Scholarships goes much deeper. Critics note that while public schools must report a host of academic, safety and faculty data, private schools that take vouchers report almost nothing to the public. The majority of voucher schools are religious, and some use Bible-based material that doesn’t conform to state standards.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is touring the state criticizing Republican lawmakers’ decision to provide public money with so few strings attached, saying it diverts money from public education to schools that may lack certified teachers or exclude students because of their religious beliefs. He’s calling for a moratorium on expansion of the program, which is slated to get more than $500 million a year by 2031.

Supporters say the accountability lies with the parents who choose a private school. They say it provides all families options that might otherwise be limited to the affluent.

And the number of participating families is growing. The first round of applications for scholarships in the coming year just closed. The State Education Assistance Authority says about 72,000 students applied. The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that's almost five times as many as last year.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, says that’s a sign that lawmakers should speed up expansion of the scholarship fund, not freeze it. Long said Cooper “needs to look at the historic demand for this program and realize he is on the wrong side of history when it comes to parental school choice in North Carolina.”

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Updated: March 7, 2024 at 9:26 AM EST
Updated to reflect new information from the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority.
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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.