Tucked in the Senate’s budget passed last week is yet another tool to siphon money out of North Carolina’s public schools.

“Personal education savings accounts,” (ESAs) would provide families of qualifying disabled students up to $9,000 a year in taxpayer funds pre-loaded on debit cards. Families can use the money to pay for private schooling costs and related expenses. As with the state’s school voucher programs, there are few restrictions on how the money can be used and even less requirements on the part of the families or the schools that receive the public funds to show they are being used for actual education expenses.

In other states, these so-called “savings accounts” set the stage to shift even more tax dollars out of the public schools and into to largely unaccountable private education operators. The most serious question? Just how much shifting of money from the state’s public schools can continue without doing serious harm to those educators and students in public schools?

Roadmap in place

The proposal in the Senate’s budget, which first surfaced last month in Sen. Chad Barefoot’s (R-Wake, Franklin) SB 603, is modest in its current form. The proposed appropriation is a relatively small $1.5 million over the next two years. (The original SB 603 had a $40 million price tag over two years for the voucher-like program.)

If experiences in other states are any indication, along with what has been seen so far in the private school voucher programs in North Carolina, the clear direction will be to grow the program exponentially and disregard critical requirements to ensure transparency and accountability for how public tax dollars are spent.

The private school voucher program is a classic example of mission creep. Initially, only students with disabilities were able to qualify for the taxpayer-funded vouchers—just as lawmakers are proposing for ESAs.

But shortly after the school voucher program for disabled students was enacted a few years ago, lawmakers then quickly imposed a more expansive voucher program, expanding it to low-income families and providing them up to $4,200 annually to pay for private schools.

That expanded private school voucher program started out with a relatively small annual price tag of just $10 million annually—but last year, the General Assembly enshrined in law a plan to expand the program to a $135 million annually—about what it would cost to give teachers a one percent pay raise—by 2026. With a vastly larger pool of public funds, it isn’t far-fetched to conclude income eligibility requirements would be discarded, as has happened in other states, resulting in even more shifting of taxpayer dollars from public education into private schools.

It would be safest to assume that the evolution of the state’s private school voucher program is a predictor for what is to come with education savings accounts, which have been dubbed as as a “voucher program on steroids” by Leanne Winner, the director of governmental relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Accountability measures among weakest in the country

Proponents of programs like vouchers and education savings accounts say families need to be able to access more choices for education. Further, they contend, these kinds of programs will work toward that end.

But critics have deep concerns, focused largely on the fact that there’s practically no way for anyone to know if the taxpayer funding is being used for education programs. The lack of a meaningful way to measure how students progress academically, for example, is one of many weaknesses in the law and it makes it nearly impossible to be assured that a private school funded by taxpayers meets, at a minimum, the same educational standards imposed on public schools.

An investigation into Star Christian Academy, a K-12 private school that occupies two rooms in the back of New Generation Christian Church in Smithfield, found that according to a former student the private voucher school employed just three teachers for 13 grades and provided very minimal active instruction. The school is run by a husband-and-wife team with a long history of personal bankruptcies and failure to pay state and federal taxes. Like many private Christian schools, Star Christian uses religious-based textbooks and curricula that take a “biblical literalist approach,” which has been criticized by education researchers for its reliance on rote memorization and failure to encourage the development of scholarship and critical thinking skills.

None of Star Christian’s educational methods would run afoul of anything in state law.

The Duke University Children’s Law Clinic recently examined North Carolina’s school voucher program and found its accountability measures to be “among the weakest in the country.”

“The [voucher] schools need not be accredited, adhere to state curricular or graduation standards, employ licensed teachers, or administer state End-of-Grade tests,” according to the report.

While the voucher program gave families more choice—especially for those who prefer religious education (93 percent of vouchers have gone to religious schools), the program “is poorly designed, however, to promote better academic outcomes for children and is unlikely to do so.”

Kris Nordstrom, an analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center, points out that the proposed education savings account plan has even less accountability than the state’s current voucher programs.

“Students will not be tested, and the state will not collect any data on student performance or parental satisfaction,” Nordstrom said. There is no accountability to taxpayers who are, after all, paying for the program and no way for parents to see if, in fact, the program is producing real results.

Grim future ahead for public schools

There are a number of mechanisms now in place to drain state coffers of funds intended for public schools.

The state’s public school budget stands at nearly $9 billion—and by many accounts that’s a figure that doesn’t keep pace with the state’s needs for educating an ever increasing population of more than 1.5 million students. Teachers are paid significantly less than the national average, funding for classroom supplies hasn’t caught up to where it was before the recession, and many schools cannot even afford a full time nurse to care for children’s health needs. Recently the state fell in a national ranking of state spending on classroom students, slipping from 42nd to 43rd.

At the same time, lawmakers have enacted programs during the past five years that are designed to shift publicly-paid resources away from public schools and into private or semi-private educational settings.

In addition to the school voucher program that stands to grow significantly over the next ten years, in 2011 lawmakers lifted the cap on the number of public charter schools that can operate in North Carolina—which means that more charter schools are in a position to contract with private education management organizations that can skim public dollars through management fees and pocket them for profit.

Contracts for the state’s two virtual charter schools were awarded to large for-profit organizations—K12, Inc. and Pearson—despite significant evidence that this method of educating students does not produce positive outcomes. As with vouchers and charter schools, virtual charter schools will likely grow over time, taking an ever increasing bite out of public school budgets.

And now the state is moving toward establishing personal education savings plans, which could eventually set the stage to allow any family to opt out of supporting a system of public schools.

With all of these plans in place, in would seem unavoidable that as they grow exponentially already chronically underfunded public schools would see conditions deteriorate significantly from a lack of funds. Meanwhile, tax dollars will instead be funneled to private schools that don’t have to adhere to any standards for educational quality or fiscal health and can discriminate by blocking access to students with special needs, the LGBTQ community and students who won’t submit to religious litmus tests.

North Carolina has long struggled to provide high quality educational opportunities for all—but it appears that to accomplish that end goal has been, at a minimum, a commonly held aspiration.

But these collective efforts to privatize the state’s public schools that have taken place over the past five years, attaining that end goal is in serious jeopardy.

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