Proposal to let NC students use public money for private schools debated

A proposal to let North Carolina students use public money to attend private or religious schools drew fierce debate Tuesday from a state House panel.
The House Education Committee heard from both sides of the voucher debate but didn't take a vote on a bill giving $4,200 annual grants to poorer students. The program is limited in its first year to students who qualify for the national school lunch program but would expand to families earning up to 133 percent of that income level in subsequent years.
A family of three couldn't earn more than $36,131 to qualify in the 2013-14 school year. The program would start with $10 million, but the legislature would allocate $50 million annually by 2015.
The bill authorizes the State Education Assistance Authority, which currently administers only college financial aid, to develop a system to awarding grants. In later years, top priority would go to eligible students who received grants the previous year followed by those living at or below the national school lunch income level and students entering kindergarten or first grade.
Families with incomes greater than the federal school lunch level could only receive up to 90 percent of the annual grant. The original version of the bill would have allowed families of four making $70,000 a year to qualify.
Opponents of the bill argue it will siphon money from an already weakened public school system and fail to adequately meet the costs of private schools. They also say the proposal rests on shaky constitutional ground and its accountability measures need to be closer to the reporting requirements of public schools.
Supporters argue research shows that voucher programs benefit not only disadvantaged students but the public school system by creating greater competition. They also say the choice should rest with a parent whose child is stuck in a low-performing school.
Both sides cite different studies that strike different conclusions about the effectiveness of vouchers, which have divided policymakers. Of the 12 states that have voucher programs, eight of them offer vouchers to students with special needs and four offer them to low-income students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The bill has primary sponsors from both parties, with two African-American Democrats signing onto the effort.
Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, said telling parents with children in failing schools that they have no choice because of where they live is anything but “progressive.”
“If you're prepared to call that progressive, if you're prepared to call that Democratic ideals, if you're prepared to call that equal opportunity and equal access, I will challenge you on that,” he said.
Minnie Forte-Brown, the vice chairwoman of Durham Public Schools, said vouchers aren't offered in most states for a reason. She argued other states haven't been happy with their programs and noted that the Louisiana Supreme Court recently struck down a voucher program because it diverted money from public schools.
“If you use best practices, you oppose vouchers,” she said. “If you want to lift North Carolina from 48th in the country in school funding, you oppose vouchers.”
Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform, said Milwaukee has seen great improvements in graduation rates since becoming the first place in the U.S. to start a voucher program in 1990, but she urged lawmakers to look beyond numbers to the personal stories of disadvantaged students.
“Sure, we can all make numbers dance and sing, but the proof is in the pudding,” she said.
State Superintendent June Atkinson opposes the bill because it doesn't require the kind of public reporting and accountability measures public schools face.
The bill will return to the Education Committee for amendments and a vote. It will then go to the Appropriations Committee, followed by the House floor.

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