Defunct private schools draw NC taxpayer dollars

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — In the last two and a half years, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars have been invested into private schools that subsequently failed.

The dollars — steered through the state’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher program since its 2014 inception — were intended to give low-income children a chance to attend the schools of their families’ choice.

Since its 2014 start, the program has paid $27.5 million in taxpayer funds to help families send children to private school. Of that total, $342,048 went to schools that are shuttered.

CBS North Carolina dug into the numbers. Here is a full list of the schools that received voucher money and closed in our area:

Tax dollars to now-defunct schools

School Dollars Received
Upper Room Christian Academy (Wake County) 239,400
All Saints Academy (Wake County) 4,200
Central Academy at Lake Park (Union County) 63,000
Kings View Christian Academy (Gaston County) $4,350
Stedman Christian Academy (Cumberland County) 12,411
Willow Tree Community School (Cleveland County) 17,687

Many public school teachers have been critical of the program, which they argue steers money away from public-school students.

“You can’t pull funding from the public school and put it in opportunity scholarships and vouchers,” said Turquoise Parker, a third-grade teacher at Eastway Elementary School in Durham.

She argues that the last thing the state’s already underfunded public schools need are dollars diverted to private schools. Parker loves her students, she said, but considered switching to a better-paying career. She said she also pays out of pocket for many of her classroom supplies.

“I understand you might think you’re supporting kids and doing what’s best for them but you’re really just hurting kids,” she said. “You’re hurting them.”

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said much the same thing.

“We have great concerns as far funneling tax payer dollars into a school structure that is not public,” he said.

His association filed lawsuits trying to stop the opportunity scholarships.

“It has no accountability, no regulation, no oversight to where the curriculum is, not even a high school diploma required from a teacher,” he said. “That is not the best use of public tax payers and really its starving our school districts.”

“It’s almost like we’re throwing our money into a hole and we don’t know if the kids are going to come out of that better or not,” said Graig Meyer, a member of the state House of Representatives who worked nearly 20 years in public schools before becoming a lawmaker.

He says the voucher program isn’t working.

“That money has ended up in somebody’s pocket, with kids not getting an education,” he said. “Without some type of transparency and accountability measures, we’re going to continue to gamble on risky investments like that, and it’s going to cost tax payers money where the kids don’t get an education at all.”

Supports of the vouchers believe it gives kids a chance at an education they would have never had before.

“We want to make sure that child, before they fall through the cracks, has a safety net and maybe, perhaps, through the Opportunity Scholarship program, maybe through the charter school, maybe through the special needs program, they’ll finally get that chance,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom.

He says the dollars used for the program are going back to the tax payers.

“We really push against the criticism [that] we have money all out there for low-income families and we have no accountability,” Allison said. “Oh yes there is.”

Under the law, schools that receive vouchers must meet certain standards, including accountability in finances, administration, academics and anti-discrimination.

“The fact a school gets closed doesn’t mean there is a failure. It means you have a system that has some quality control unlike the public schools that can’t be closed no matter how bad they are,” said Paul Stam, the state representative who introduced the school voucher bill.

According to the 2013-2014 National Education Association Report, North Carolina is spending $8,632 per pupil in public school. The voucher program pays up to $4,200 per eligible student.

Stam insists the voucher program is a popular success.

“Almost 100 percent satisfaction from that first group of students and the second group again, a huge number of renewals that parents are saying ‘Yes this has been good for my child,’” Stam said.

But teachers like Parker argue that money is being diverted from public schools and won’t reach the students who can’t get into the voucher program.

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