Lawmakers misfire with plan to expand NC’s ill-conceived voucher program

Lawmakers misfire with plan to expand NC’s ill-conceived voucher program

“Governor Cooper is failing when it comes to helping minority students. Don’t let him take away your Opportunity Scholarships,” reads the Raleigh billboard, the latest conservative spittooning of the Democratic governor.

Sounds heinous, if true, but the truth is truly, extraordinarily, squishy in this instance.

Indeed, Cooper’s proposed budget proposes to wind down the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, a Republican championed initiative that diverts state funds into private school scholarships for K-12 students. But it’s a mighty presumption that the program is a boon to minority or low-income students.

That some conservatives wish to undermine and oust a Democratic governor is, of course, typical politics. That some conservatives wish to deceive us about the value of a multi-million-dollar education initiative – one scheduled to surpass $130 million in annual funding by 2026 – is another matter entirely.

Initially pitched as a salve for low-income children languishing in public schools, its benefactors in the Senate authored another bullish, ill-conceived expansion in recent days, opening up income eligibility requirements to admit more middle-income families, and bulldozing the cap on admissions for kindergartners and first graders – a necessary means of ensuring applicants would not have gone to private school without the scholarship.

The state’s legislative leaders are fond of the “foot in the door” approach, legislative inertia in the place of well-considered policymaking. Launch a controversial program with modest beginnings and then expand it on an annual basis come hell or high water.

The program’s rapacious budget is expanding by millions every year, and while the current spending level – north of $50 million – is dwarfed by the billions spent in the state’s overall education budget, this is an investment that prizes ideology above all else.

All of this could make some sense if there were credible evidence that the voucher program is improving performance for North Carolina’s low-income children, that in a private school, they are faring better than their counterparts in public schools.

Yet if you can discern such information from North Carolina’s intentionally discombobulated laws – which do not require that voucher recipients even take the same test as their public school peers – you are, truly, a matchless scholar.

An oft-cited, “quasi-experimental” study released last summer by researchers at N.C. State suggested there may be some improvement among students receiving vouchers, but even that report’s authors acknowledged the obvious challenges of drawing conclusions based on current laws. Indeed, the study relied on a non-representative sample of volunteer voucher recipients.

“From a policy perspective, the biggest takeaway from this paper is just how many limitations there are to conducting a high-quality evaluation of the program’s academic impact, given current statutes,” the paper’s lead author, Anna Egalite, wrote last year.

North Carolina legislators, at every turn, have resisted “apples to apples” comparisons. There comes a point at which North Carolinians must wonder if legislators are selling rotten fruit. If so, hawking bad apples is bad enough, but offering it as a godsend, a desperate morsel, to struggling families is unconscionable.

“Parents are the ultimate accountability check regarding the overall efficacy of the educational experience provided to their children,” Sen. Ben Clark, a Hoke County Democrat and co-sponsor of the latest voucher expansion, argues.

“These programs mitigate financial barriers to parents with limited fiscal flexibility and empowers them to seek and choose alternatives for their kids to match them with the optimal educational environment for achieving success.”

We have, it seems, irretrievably different definitions of the word “optimal.”

And if, at first glance, you believe lawmakers’ bristling rejection of private school transparency and accountability scans as hypocritical, fear not, it’s unflinchingly hypocritical on second glance as well.

A wide-open curriculum, limited public record requirements for private school performance data, scant reporting on how private schools spend public dollars, not to mention the yawning absence of anti-discrimination protections required of these mostly religious schools: The mind reels at the thought of lawmakers considering such boundlessly “benevolent” liberties for traditional public schools.

Conservatives often speak of accountability when it comes to public schools, and well they should. Such institutions, entrusted with the well-being of our children – not to mention a heaping portion of the state budget – should be closely scrutinized. But too often, accountability for conservatives is a ruse, a cheap ploy to siphon K-12 resources from public to private sources.

And their withering criticism of public schools follows nearly a decade of injurious, Republican-led budgets that trailed other states in this nation. It’s like shoving a knife in your tire and complaining about the flat.

School choice advocates are often half-right when it comes to their attacks on North Carolina’s public schools. In many low-income regions, schools have struggled to improve fortunes for their students, exacerbating a terrible cycle of poverty.

Educators have a healthy idea of how to improve performance in lagging schools, and it involves abundant, well-funded interventions, “wraparound” services for at-risk children and families, healthy recruiting of burnished administrators and teachers, and dutifully researched turnaround initiatives.

But conservatives and school choice zealots propose experiments rather than solutions – forays into private, charter takeovers; digital Pre-k programs; privately-funded virtual schooling.

Why does lawmakers’ empathy for poor children require a private beneficiary lurking in the wings? Why do our leaders treat a public problem like a private business opportunity? These children are not your science experiment. These children are not fodder for start-ups.

The mostly conservative lawmakers and advocates who – for better or for worse, mostly worse – talk openly of assuaging these intolerable conditions with more school choice programs owe us more than a faulty shtick.

They owe us leadership. And North Carolina lawmakers desperately seeking accountability should start with themselves.