Proposed private school voucher expansions divert even more money from an already underfunded public school system, and fail to address severe teacher shortages.
North Carolina public schools face severe teacher and staff shortages, especially in rural areas, and the state ranks dead last or near last in several national categories charting public education spending.
The underfunding is so pronounced that several court rulings ordered the General Assembly to spend more money on public schools. Judges even devised “the Leandro” plan, an equitable-funding roadmap, to show them how.
But that’s not what Republicans in the General Assembly did this legislative session.
Instead, they are poised to pass laws that take even more money from public schools and give it to an unregulated private school system that does not have to share its performance data and can openly discriminate against LGBTQ students and children with disabilities.
While Republican lawmakers pitch this expansion as giving parents a choice of schools, the reality is that the choice will primarily benefit wealthy families who already have kids in a private school.
House Bill 823, for example, 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.
The voucher 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 rates.
“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 week.
“This is a program for folks who are already paying private school tuition and want a little discount at the expense of taxpayers.”
Gov. Roy Cooper declared a “state of emergency” in May over the state of public school funding, even if such a move has no practical effects.
“The Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education,” Cooper said in a video address to the state last month. “The damage will set back our schools for a generation.
“When kids leave public schools for private school,” he added, “the public schools lose hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Several bipartisan school boards have recently passed resolutions opposing these changes and calling on state legislatures to prioritize public education and abandon its efforts to expand private schools and the public system’s expense.
The legislation “creates two taxpayer-funded systems – one public and one private,” Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), said at the Wednesday rally.
“These vouchers take scarce resources from our public schools – where the majority of our working families send their children to learn and grow,” Walker Kelly said.
“Public education is a constitutional right in this state. Most importantly, it is also a moral obligation for our children.”
Republican lawmakers likely have the votes to pass these bills and could do so as early as this week, but they are not supported by the public.
A recent CREED poll shows that 59% of North Carolinians oppose taking more money away from public schools, he told the rally, and more than 80% say that any private school that gets state money should be far more transparent about how its students are doing.
Todd Warren, a public schools advocate and campaign strategist for Down Home North Carolina, said that despite recent narratives pushed by Republicans, public schools still have a really broad base of support.
“There is a lot of narrative and stories out there that somehow these schools are failing,” Warren said. “And the reality is that the schools are not failing considering the levels that they’re funded at. When you talk to people about where they went to school and where their children go to school, they’re generally satisfied. So then that failing narrative becomes about other schools, which then feeds into the larger conversation, even if that conversation isn’t meant to apply to my school.”
The solution to the problems facing public schools is simple, he said: adequate funding.
“We have an inability to pay educators appropriately,” he said, “to attract and retain teachers, bus drivers and counselors.”
Would adequate funding along the specifics of the Leandro Plan solve all these problems?
“It would be a big part of the solution,” Warren said.
Fully funding schools means being able to attract high-quality teachers and support staff.
While the budget proposed by Cooper includes an 18% raise for teachers, in line with Leandro’s recommendations, the proposed House budget offers 10.2% and the Senate proposal comes in at 4.5% over two years.
While the Senate version increases starting salaries higher than the House budget, this 4.5% raise would mean about $250 more for veteran teachers.
Warren works with HEAL Together NC to help encourage parents show up at school board meetings to clap back against demands to ban books or white-wash history. The boards also need to be shown that most parents have their backs “on the front lines of the culture war” and that the public supports public schools, he said.
Warren believes this would embolden them to push back against the current efforts to prioritize private schools. But for this to happen, Warren said, parents have to start showing up at school board meetings.
“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.
During the rally last week, Wilson of CREED said that the false narrative around private schools was intentional.
“The other reason that lawmakers are trying to expand this program that nobody knows about and nobody wants,” he said, “is because they think that we’re fools.”
The pitch that anyone can send their children to any private school is “fool’s gold,” he told the crowd.
“But we know that that’s fool’s gold, we don’t want that fool’s gold,” Wilson said.