By Margaret B. Arbuckle
The legality of using tax dollars to pay for school vouchers to enable parents to choose private school education for their children will be decided by the N.C. Supreme Court in the near future. As a plaintiff in this lawsuit and as a long-time advocate for quality public education for every child, I am appalled at the argument of the voucher proponents that vouchers give parents a “choice” of education for their children. This choice can result in very inferior education for their child and little accountability to the general public for the use of the tax dollars.
There are no requirements in the voucher legislation addressing teacher quality, teacher certification and expected components of the offered curriculum. A criminal background check only of the principal is required, not of the teaching staff. There is no public accountability for student academic performance and no requirements of non-discrimination and the civil rights of children with disabilities or behavioral issues. Participating private schools don’t have to commit to enroll the child for the full academic year. Private schools may dismiss a child at will, no matter the “cause.”
Compounding the resulting negative educational impact on the child, there will be a deleterious impact on our public schools. Children who have not been educated adequately in the “choice voucher school” may return to our public schools but be critically behind academically, thus putting pressure on public school teachers to get the child to grade level academically.
Last summer, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled against the voucher legislation, saying the N.C. Constitution requires that public dollars be used exclusively for free public education open to all children. Complicating the situation, before the hearing of the full case by the Supreme Court, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Sen. Phil Berger and former Speaker Thom Tillis appealed to the Supreme Court to lift the stay enacted by Hobgood’s ruling and allow the payment of vouchers for the students who had been accepted to private schools for this academic year.
Private schools are expected to be registered with the N.C. Division of Nonpublic Education, which is charged with oversight of 700 independent schools and more than 60,000 home-schooled students.
This oversight requirement is minimal: Private schools must maintain attendance and immunization records of students, operate on a regular schedule for at least nine months of the year, adhere to building safety regulations, and administer a standardized test of their choosing to grades 3, 6, 9 and 11 with a self-determined required score for graduation. The schools do not have to be accredited by any state or national entity. All 10 of the schools in Guilford County receiving voucher payments for students this academic year are sponsored by religious organizations, with the majority of Guilford voucher students enrolled at the Greensboro Islamic Academy.
Five of the participating schools enroll only one or two voucher students.
Vouchers have horrible consequences, including misuse of public funds, violating separation of church and state and compromising children’s educational outcomes in unaccountable schools. This is a bad idea, wrong in its concept and implementation. The consequences for our public education system will be dire. It is my ardent hope that the N.C. Supreme Court will find the voucher program unconstitutional.
Margaret B. Arbuckle is a former Guilford County commissioner and former executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance.