Durham children in running for state vouchers

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 04:40 PM

Nearly 200 local children were among the 4,700 from across the state who applied for Opportunity Scholarships.

If granted, the scholarships would allow them to attend private or religious schools at taxpayers’ expense.

The state-funded program to award low-income parents annual grants of up to $4,200 to send their children to such schools was recently suspended. Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood issued an injunction against the program while legal challenges are resolved.

“It’s just at a standstill at this moment,” said Elizabeth McDuffie, director of grants, training and outreach for the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, the state agency charged with administering the vouchers. “We’re preserving the applications and will wait to see what happens next.”

The N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association filed separate lawsuits against the Republican-backed legislation. They contend that it’s unconstitutional for the state to give parents public money to send their children to private schools.

Dozens of school boards, including the one in Durham, also have challenged the program’s legality. They’ve adopted resolutions in opposition to the controversial law.

“Using state money to support a private-school education is unconstitutional, and is not something we should want to do, especially with such limited oversight of how the money is spent,” said Heidi Carter, who chairs the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.

She said the proposed voucher program, along with the growth of charter schools, has the potential to create separate but unequal schools. Durham faced a similar situation two decades ago and sought to remedy that by merging the former city and county school systems.

“I think children learn better in integrated schools,” Carter said.

School board member Natalie Beyer said there’s no evidence that vouchers help students.

“Extensive research has shown vouchers do not improve student achievement,” Beyer said.

Many private schools in North Carolina have religious affiliations, a fact that troubles opponents.

“That seems to be a violation of church and state,” Carter said.

A recent survey by the Children’s Law Clinic at the Duke University School of Law found that of the 696 private schools that are registered with the State Division of Non-Public Education, 70 percent are religious.

State funding would follow children awarded vouchers, so larger school districts potentially could lose millions of dollars.

The Children’s Law Clinic study also found that the average tuition of private schools in North Carolina, excluding boarding schools and special schools, is $6,690 and that approximately 38 percent of schools charge tuition at some level that could be fully paid by a voucher of $4,200 or less.

Supporters of the program, which would cost $10 million to implement, argue that the voucher program would give another option to low-income parents unhappy with public schools.

The injunction has delayed the state’s proposed lottery to award 2,400 school vouchers for the 2014-15 school year.

As Wednesday’s voucher submission deadline approached, McDuffie said 827 applications had been received from Mecklenburg County and 715 Wake County.

She said only 12 applications had been received from Orange County.