School vouchers: We need accountability before further expansion

By Matt Ellinwood - N.C. Justice Center

The subject of school vouchers remains a controversial and divisive matter in North Carolina. To many opponents, they pose an existential threat to the future of public education. To many proponents, they are a potential cure for all that is broken or imperfect in K-12 schools.

Whatever one’s position on vouchers, however, one idea ought to unify all sides – that the voucher system ought to be driven by data and sound policy principles rather than ideology and intuition.

Unfortunately, the new 2016 state budget recently enacted by the legislature more than doubles North Carolina’s funding for the voucher program from $11 million to $27 million over the next two years in spite of a complete lack of evidence of how the program worked in its first year of operation.

But legislators did send a positive signal when they rejected a bill advanced during the waning days of the legislative session that would have further expanded the voucher program by allowing up to 45% of vouchers to be awarded to kindergartners and first graders. Current law limits it to 35%. In addition to dramatically ramping up the size and cost of the program, a rapid expansion in the number of eligible kindergartners would send the message that vouchers should be extended to larger numbers of students who have never attended public schools.

It seems the thing that made lawmakers – even conservative voucher supporters — most uncomfortable about further expanding vouchers was the absence of any tangible results regarding the educational impact for participating students. As Rep. Bryan Holloway asked, “Why not just move forward, come back next year, see these kids’ test scores? Look at the data. Look at the schools these kids pick. Let’s look at the data before we do this.”

Unfortunately, the data that legislators have on the program next year will still be remarkably limited. While voucher students are required to take a nationally-normed standardized test, this can be essentially any test and there is no requirement that it mirror the tests taken in North Carolina’s local public schools or public charter schools. As a practical matter, this makes it impossible to accurately compare the performance of voucher recipients to their public school counterparts.

Graduation rates will also not be comparable because private schools receiving vouchers are not required to calculate graduation rates in the same manner as public schools. Other accountability shortcomings include: the lack of a requirement that voucher schools teach core subject areas or other set curricula, the absence of class size regulations in voucher schools and the lack of a requirement that voucher schools provide information publicly on their websites.

Voucher proponents frequently argue that accountability ultimately lies with the parent as the educational decision-maker, but parents cannot make truly informed decisions about their children’s education without adequate information about how schools serve students and families. This is precisely why there has been a recent push to assign letter grades to public schools and why local public and charter schools are required to publish an annual school report card on their websites.

These report cards include information that private schools receiving public money ought to provide in order to be transparent and accountable to taxpayers – things like average class sizes, teacher qualifications, school safety, access to technology, and how the school’s test score performance compares against district and state averages. Voucher laws in other states that operate programs similar to North Carolina’s (Indiana for example) require such disclosures.

After recently visiting a voucher-eligible school in his district that enrolled only 10-15 students, one longtime voucher supporter, Rep. Leo Daughtry of Johnston County, observed “the school there that I visited didn’t seem to be a school that we would want to send taxpayer dollars to.” The school in Daughtry’s district is far from the only one. Many voucher-eligible schools across the state have enrollments of just one or two students.

By contrast, charter schools are required to enroll at least 80 students to alleviate concerns that the schools are simply home schools and to avoid the difficulty of providing aggregated data without an adequate sample size. Subjecting voucher-eligible schools to similar requirements would provide some minimal protection against the misuse of public funds in inappropriate school environments.

The upshot of all this is that parents deserve to know what is happening in their children’s school, taxpayers deserve to know what their money is being used for and legislators deserve to have information when making decisions that have a large-scale impact on North Carolina’s education system.

Unless North Carolina requires the same level of accountability and transparency from the private and religious schools that receive vouchers as it requires from other schools that receive public money, it is making education policy on hunches and ideology rather than real data. The state’s children deserve more certainty than that.

Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.

By Matt Ellinwood

N.C. Justice Center

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