New Voucher Bill Would Give Taxpayer Dollars to Schools That Discriminate Based on Religion

North Carolina state Rep. Tricia Cotham, R-Mecklenburg, speaks about a bill that would expand the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program at a Legislative Building news conference in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. The measure would end family income eligibility requirements for a K-12 student to obtain a taxpayer-funded award to attend a private or religious school (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

By Justin Parmenter

June 29, 2023

House Bill 823 would direct taxpayer dollars to schools that deny admissions to LGBTQ students, students whose families practice the “wrong” religion, or students who have special needs such as learning disabilities. 

As this year’s legislative session hits the homestretch, public education advocates are waiting to see whether proposed changes to North Carolina’s school voucher system become law.

On the House side, brand new Republican Rep. Tricia Cotham sponsored House Bill 823, a bill which would expand funding for vouchers by hundreds of millions of dollars a year until the annual amount going to school vouchers eclipses $500 million in school year 2032-33 and every year thereafter.

In addition to massively increasing funding for vouchers, the proposed legislation eliminates income eligibility requirements so that any student in the state–regardless of financial need–may use public money to attend private schools. That means North Carolina taxpayers will be subsidizing the tuition of wealthy families whose students already attend private schools.

A parallel bill has been filed in the Senate.

Advocates are concerned about the proposed legislation for a variety of reasons. Among them are the continued depletion of resources available to public schools; the relative lack of accountability charter and private schools have, which mean no real way to track return on investment, and; the use of public dollars to support institutions which are legally able to discriminate against children.

Federal civil rights law prohibits discrimination on a variety of grounds for institutions that receive federal funds, among them religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity) and disability.

In most cases, those prohibitions do not extend to religious private schools which take in more than 90% of North Carolina’s voucher students. Many of those schools accept public tax dollars via the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program and deny admissions to LGBTQ students, students whose families practice the “wrong” religion, and students who have special needs such as learning disabilities.  And many of the schools come right out and advertise their discriminatory practices in official school documents. 

Here are a few examples:

Students with special needs:

Alamance Christian Academy in Graham, NC, assesses students based on their  “emotional readiness,” as well as academic and behavioral histories as justification to refuse admission to students with “deficiencies.”

Southeastern Christian Academy in Shallotte, NC says “A student may be ineligible for enrollment based on achievement and/or individual learning styles. Because SCA is a private school, compliance with IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] issued by the public school system is not required.” 

North Raleigh Christian Academy also discriminates against children with special needs. The school’s admissions policy states that NCRA only accepts students who score on grade level and will not admit anyone with an IQ of 90 or below. IEPs are not available at NCRA.

LGBTQ students:

Many of North Carolina’s private schools that receive millions in taxpayer funding via vouchers specifically deny admissions to LGBTQ students or vow to expel any student who is discovered to be LGBTQ after enrolling.

For example, Wesleyan Christian Academy does not accept students who are discovered to be “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual orientation, homosexual activity, or bisexual activity; promoting such practices; or being unable to support the moral principles of the school.” 

Wesleyan’s promise to exclude those students appears on the same handbook page where the school claims to seek students who are “reflective of the global community in which we live.”

Fayetteville Christian School similarly bars LGBTQ students, labeling them “deviate [sic] and perverted.”

High Point Christian Academy also accepts public funding through Opportunity Scholarship vouchers.  This institution makes it clear that attendance is “a privilege and not a right,” and explains that when conduct within a student’s home diverges from “the biblical lifestyle the school teaches,” the school may refuse admission or discontinue enrollment.

Students with religious differences:

More than 90% of the students claiming public voucher dollars attend religious private schools, and the vast majority of those schools are Christian schools.  While some are tolerant of religious diversity, many of them will not accept students unless they are Christian.

Freedom Christian Academy in Fayetteville only accepts students “whose home life is led by parents who have a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ.” The student’s spiritual life must demonstrate “a relationship with Jesus Christ resulting in age-appropriate virtue and high moral character.”

Fayetteville Christian Academy, previously mentioned above for denying admissions to LGBTQ students, specifically states in its admissions requirements that it will “not admit families that belong to or express faith in non-Christian religions such as, but not limited to: Mormons (LDS Church), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims (Islam), non-Messianic Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.”

Research clearly shows that the most important factor in student learning outcomes is access to excellent teachers. North Carolina requires public school teachers to be licensed in order to demonstrate they have the necessary skills for the job.

Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham does not require teachers to be licensed, but this voucher-receiving organization is proud of the fact that the school’s entire staff has demonstrated being filled with the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues.

Public schools are proud to welcome, accept and support our students exactly as they are.  It’s disappointing that North Carolina’s state legislature and “school choice” proponents are moving in the opposite direction by exponentially increasing public funding for schools that deny learning opportunities to specific students.  

If you object to your public tax dollars funding institutions that discriminate in this way, please contact your state legislator and urge them to oppose expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program.

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