NC School Boards Push Back Against Vouchers, Ask Lawmakers to ‘Prioritize Our Public Schools’ 

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By Michael McElroy

July 21, 2023

Republican-backed legislation would expand private school vouchers at the expense of public schools, but public school officials have increased their warnings of the consequences for their districts. 

More than 25 city and county school boards in North Carolina have passed resolutions objecting to legislation that would expand private schools at the expense of the state’s already underfunded public school system. And superintendents from nearly 20 other school districts have also sent letters to lawmakers asking them to reconsider the legislation and warning of the consequences of stripping even more money from their school districts. 

While Republican lawmakers pitch this private school expansion as giving parents a choice, the moves would primarily benefit wealthy families and make long-standing public school issues even worse. In the weeks since the legislation was introduced, public school advocates and officials have increased their push against the measures.

North Carolina public schools face severe teacher, staff, and bus driver shortages, especially in rural areas, and the state ranks dead last or near last in several national categories charting public education spending. 

So what does the legislation do?

House Bill 823 would open a private-school voucher program intended for low-income families to all families, meaning that wealthy parents could now use tax-payer money to pay their private school tuition.

House Bill 219 and both the House and Senate budget proposals significantly increase the money diverted from the public to the private system. The budgets also steeply lower taxes over the next several years, further depleting the prime sources of public school funding. 

Senate Bill 90, which does not seem to have enough support even among Republicans, would make it easier for a small number of parents to get superintendents fired or prosecute librarians.

The public school districts voicing concern include a mix of rural and city schools in both Democratic and Republican areas. 

“In 2026-27 alone, if the private school voucher program is expanded, our state’s public schools could lose more than $200 million in state funding,” the Guilford County School Board wrote in its resolution. 

So, the board wrote, it formally “requests that the North Carolina General Assembly prioritize our public schools,” by “making significant investments in teacher salary increases of at least 18% over the next two years,” and “stopping the unlimited expansion of the state’s private school voucher program.”

The requests were similar across the other school boards.

There is little evidence that private schools overall perform better than public schools, but there is evidence that expanding voucher programs hurts the public school system.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, declared a public education state of emergency last month in response to the legislation, and called on Republican lawmakers to drop their plans and adopt the court-ordered Leandro plan, a comprehensive roadmap written by national educators and scholars to “ensure ALL children receive the constitutional standard of education” in North Carolina. 

“Education leaders in 40 school districts across the state are continuing to speak out against extreme plans that would undermine and underfund public education and call on the legislature to make meaningful investments in public schools,” Gov. Cooper’s office said in a news release this week.

The proposed voucher program expansion would provide $7,000 a school year to lower-earning families and $3,000 to high-income families. But private schools often charge far more than the vouchers will cover, and in other states with expanded programs, these schools have used the increased funding as cover to simultaneously increase their tuition.

“This is not a program for working class people, this is not a program for students who are currently enrolled in struggling public schools,” Jerry Wilson, a director at the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED), said at a public school rally in Raleigh last month.

“This is a program for folks who are already paying private school tuition and want a little discount at the expense of taxpayers.”

As public school advocates and officials continue to lobby lawmakers, the voucher system has come under increased scrutiny.

Kris Nordstrom of the NC Justice Center reported last month that in more than 60 instances a private school had received more student vouchers than it had students, raising questions of fraud or at the very least, highlighting how little oversight North Carolina private schools face. 

Private schools are not bound by many of the same rules and standards as public schools, don’t have to report their test scores, and, with many religious schools, can openly discriminate against LGBTQ students and students with disabilities.

To address the budget shortfalls, many school districts are asking parents to provide some of the support the legislature won’t.

In an email to parents this week, Wake County Schools warned that bus driver shortages could be severe in the fall and asked any parent who was able to provide their own transportation to do so. 

“This will be a tremendous help,” Wake County Schools said in the email. 

“While we are doing everything we can to make routes as efficient as possible to serve the maximum number of students, the driver shortage will cause delays in service during the upcoming school year. Sometimes, no bus will be available and students will have to find alternative transportation to and from school.”

Todd Warren, a public school advocate and campaign strategist for Down Home North Carolina, said that school boards were crucial in the fight against these bills.

But that local school officials also need parental support.

“We need to clearly demonstrate to school board members and public school districts that we support honest, accurate, safe, equitable, fully funded schools, and we need them to be brave and defend those policies,” he said.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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