Date of voucher payout to families moved ahead of critical court hearing that will decide if program is legal
Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam has long supported school vouchers and successfully co-sponsored legislation that would put 10 million taxpayer dollars into the hands of families wishing to send their children to private schools instead of public ones, beginning this fall.
Formally known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, school vouchers hit a bump in the road this past spring when Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood temporarily halted the program pending a final ruling, calling into question the constitutionality of funneling public dollars into the coffers of private institutions.
But the state Supreme Court overturned Judge Hobgood’s temporary stay, and as the state’s administrative office handling Opportunity Scholarships rushes to get the vouchers into the hands of families and private schools before a final court ruling could find the program unlawful, Rep. Stam has been working hard to expand the voucher program to nearly double its intended size in time for the start of the school year.
Last summer, lawmakers authorized a program that would provide 2,400 students with up to $4,200 each year to attend private schools, touting it as a “pilot” that would allow low-income students to seek out alternative forms of schooling to what the public education system has to offer.
Critics of the program say that it’s unconstitutional to send public dollars to private schools, which are held to very few standards and safeguards that would ensure students’ academic success. In addition, roughly 70 percent of North Carolina’s private schools are religious.
More than 5,500 students applied for the 2,400 school vouchers. A lottery was conducted in late June to decide which students would receive the Opportunity Scholarships; applicants who did not win the lottery and met eligibility criteria were waitlisted.
Last month, Senate leader Phil Berger, Speaker Thom Tillis and other lawmakers held a news conference in conjunction with school voucher advocates to announce they would seek an expansion of the program to accommodate all eligible applicants—before the program even gets off the ground.
Made clear in emails obtained by N.C. Policy Watch through a public records request, school voucher supporter Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam (R-Wake) is taking the helm on the voucher expansion, seeking to double the size of the pilot program.
Amy O’Neal, research assistant to Rep. Stam, emailed the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA) numerous times between June 3 and July 12 to inquire about the progress of the program’s implementation [SEAA is the administrative body tasked with managing the Opportunity Scholarship Program.]
O’Neal inquired multiple times with SEAA about estimating the cost associated with expanding the program from 2,400 students to roughly 4,100 students – the estimated number of eligible applicants as of June – for fall 2014.
Based on estimates discussed in email exchanges between O’Neal and Elizabeth McDuffie, SEAA’s administrator of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the cost of the program would rise to potentially an additional $8 million — $18 million total for 2014 – to accommodate the expansion.
From where those additional funds could come is unclear, especially at a time when lawmakers are still embroiled in a budget battle over how much to pay public school teachers — well past the hoped for end-of-session date of late June or early July. Stam’s office was continuing to discuss the voucher program’s expansion as recently as July 10, according to public records.
Other states have also sought to expand their school voucher programs – but after programs were already up and running. In Wisconsin, where the state’s Milwaukee school voucher initiative is the first of its kind to take hold in the United States, Governor Scott Walker pushed for expanding it to the entire state in 2013. And in Florida, lawmakers just snuck in a school voucher expansion by way of a budget bill. That move is already being challenged in court by the state’s teacher union.
Emails also show that Stam’s office is keeping close tabs on which private schools properly register themselves for the Opportunity Scholarship Program – especially those that stand to enroll significant numbers of voucher-funded students.
Fayetteville Christian School, for example, hopes to enroll 76 students this fall who have taxpayer-funded school vouchers.
“[Fayetteville Christian School] called SEAA three weeks ago and were told they were completely registered, but on the lists I have last week, FCS is listed as “Saved not Submitted,” wrote Rep. Stam’s research assistant Amy O’Neal to program administrator Elizabeth McDuffie. “Would you mind checking on this for me?”
For frustrated parents who were waitlisted after the lottery for school vouchers took place, Stam’s office sought to reassure them that he was doing his best to expand the program.
“She is displeased…that there is not more money to help all students,” SEAA administrator McDuffie wrote in an email to Stam’s assistant, O’Neal, on July 9.
“I will call her back today and het her know we’re doing our best to expand the program,” O’Neal responded on July 10.
Rep. Stam, who did not respond to telephone and email inquiries for this story, has long supported school vouchers and introduced legislation to bring them to the state back in 2012.
“We’ve been trying to do this for 20 years,” Stam said last year, when he began pushing the 2013 version of school voucher legislation that ultimately passed the Republican-dominated state legislature.
“It is nice to have a majority in the legislature to be able to actually do it,” said Stam.
Parents for Educational Freedom NC (PEFNC) – a pro-voucher lobby in North Carolina that receives the bulk of its funding from the Walton Family – has made campaign contributions to Stam and has even flown him and other lawmakers to Florida in 2013 to learn more about that state’s own voucher scheme.
Organizations on behalf of public school advocates, however, are hoping to put a stop to the program in order to keep badly needed funds within the public schools.
In early June, Judge Hobgood set August 22 as the date for a final ruling to determine the fate of the school voucher program, which is being challenged by the North Carolina Association of Educators, the North Carolina School Boards Association, and the North Carolina Justice Center*.
If Judge Hobgood finds the Opportunity Scholarship Program to be unconstitutional, which he indicated is likely by issuing the temporary injunction last spring, then the program will be halted once again — at least temporarily, in the event that his ruling is appealed.
The SEAA had planned to disburse the school voucher funds in mid-September – but in late June, the administrative body moved the disbursement date up to August 15 – which would usher taxpayer funds out the door before Judge Hobgood’s ruling.
Seeking an understanding from the SEAA as to why the date was moved up at the last minute and a request to move the date of disbursement back to the original mid-September timeline, attorneys challenging the voucher program on behalf of the plaintiffs received no explanation from opposing counsel, prompting them to file a motion on July 18 asking the court to speed up the date of its final ruling before voucher money could leave the state’s coffers.
While it’s not clear if the SEAA moved the voucher disbursement date thanks to pressure from Rep. Stam or any other lawmaker, according to public records the SEAA did receive an email inquiry from legislative staff attorney Kara McCraw on June 4 – the day after a scheduling order for the summary judgment hearing was agreed to by attorneys, making the date August 22.
“I’ve been asked if you could provide answers to the following questions,” inquired McCraw in an email to McDuffie. “What is the absolutely earliest date that the scholarship disbursements could go out this summer?”
McDuffie responded the SEAA could disburse the funds as early as August 12.
Attorney Burton Craige, who represents plaintiffs challenging the voucher program, told N.C. Policy Watch last week that releasing taxpayer funds prior to the court ruling is troubling.
“If funds are distributed to parents and schools to support a program that is going to be declared unconstitutional in late August, then the state is put in the position of having to retrieve that money from hundreds of schools, and parents who are relying on these vouchers are going to find that the voucher is worthless,” said Craige.
Judge Hobgood is expected to hold a hearing possibly this week to determine whether or not to move up his own date for a summary judgment of the school voucher program, allowing him to potentially rule the program unconstitutional prior to the release of taxpayer funds.
Stay tuned for further updates.
*N.C. Policy Watch is a project of the North Carolina Justice Center, which is co-counsel in the litigation challenging the school voucher program.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at [email protected] or 919-861-1460