There is no more unifying statement we, as Americans, utter than the 31 words embodied within the Pledge of Allegiance. The last six words capture the essence of who we are as a nation: With Liberty and Justice for All. These words ring as a promise to each of America’s citizens.
The North Carolina Supreme Court held true to these principles of justice and liberty by upholding the Opportunity Scholarship Program. This monumental decision liberates thousands of low-income children from being trapped in an inferior educational model with no way out and positively impacts our state.
Why? There’s a chronic issue affecting our public school system: North Carolina simply doesn’t educate our poor children well. Hundreds of thousands of our state’s low-income public school children perform below grade level in reading or math. Furthermore, of our state’s more than 1.5 million public school children, low-income children make up the majority of students enrolled in nearly all of the public schools that were grossly underperforming in our state.
From communities to the legislature and, most recently, the courtroom, we’ve heard the basic argument that programs like the Opportunity Scholarship destroy public education. However, in the words of a national school reformer and civil rights advocate, Dr. Howard Fuller: “Perhaps we don’t quite understand what public education is. What makes public education public is that it operates in the public interest of society as a whole.” I will add that society as a whole means not just the rich or middle-class, but the poor as well.
How is it in the public’s interest for our poorest children to make up the highest percentage of suspensions and expulsions in our public schools, have the lowest graduation rates, be less likely to read by third grade, and have the lowest competency scores for decades? How do our poor families see “With Liberty and Justice for All” in this?
In struggling to understand the problem regarding the educational underperformance of low-income children, many are quick to point the finger at the negligence of parents – chastising them for their lack of interest, involvement and overall support of their child’s education. No one questions the great value engaged parents play in their child’s educational experience. However, think about how poor parents in North Carolina responded to the bell in fighting for their child’s opportunity through this Program. Thousands of these low-income parents didn’t just knock on the door – they blew it open for this opportunity.
In just two years of a court-impeded program, we’ve seen over 11,000 applications flood in from all 100 counties of this state. For those low-income families whose children were allowed to participate in the Program last year, nearly 95% of them re-applied this year. Their tenacity during the Program’s legal battle illustrates that despite their poverty status, these parents do care about their children’s education just as much as anyone.
In one of the court’s dissenting opinions, it was stated this Program “provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools’ contribution to public purposes…” In other words, the dissenting Justice argued that the Program lacks accountability. Moving beyond who should ultimately be both Alpha and Omega on the subject of accountability – the parent – this Program has strong measures in place to ensure such: private schools are required to test scholarship students each year and report those results to the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority; participating private schools with a high number of scholarship students are subjected to a financial review conducted by an outside CPA; and a full reporting must be made annually to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee.
To be clear, this Program is not the sole answer for all, but it can be a solution for thousands of low-income families who desire it. For these parents, thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the phrase With Liberty and Justice for All is more than patriotic rhetoric. It has true meaning which, in this instance, is now marvelously real and divinely tangible.
Darrell Allison is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.