A pitch earlier this month by Senate lawmakers to create a “school voucher program on steroids” didn’t surface in the partial House education budget that was revealed Thursday.
Instead, House lawmakers chose to maintain already scheduled expansion efforts for North Carolina’s current school voucher program while also making some effort to improve accountability and transparency for the tax dollars that flow to largely unaccountable private schools through vouchers.
As pitched by Senate lawmakers, “Education Savings Accounts,” or ESAs, would allow families with children who have disabilities to use up to $9,000 in taxpayer funds toward private schooling and related expenses—funds that would be pre-loaded onto debit cards and handed out to the families of eligible students.
ESAs exist in five other states. In North Carolina, an ESA plan that would provide families with payments worth more than double the state’s current school voucher award would set the stage to shift even more tax dollars out of the public schools and into to largely unaccountable private education operators. As with the state’s current school voucher program, the language in the Senate’s ESA proposal provides minimal safeguards to ensure tax dollars are spent on high quality educational opportunities. Arizona just expanded their ESA program to allow anyone in the state to participate, regardless of income or special needs and despite fraud and abuse that a state auditor’s investigation revealed.
On Thursday morning, it appeared that House lawmakers hadn’t bought into ESAs—or at least, not yet.
But the House’s budget documents did reveal their desire to stay the course on expanding the current school voucher program—even though, as some Democratic lawmakers pointed out, demand for vouchers has not yet reached current funding levels.
In a nod toward increased accountability, the House budget included a special provision that would require all voucher schools to administer the same nationally normed standardized test to voucher students, using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
This is an important move because currently voucher schools are permitted to administer virtually any standardized test to students as long as it is nationally normed—making it impossible to make meaningful comparisons between voucher schools when it comes to student performance.
House lawmakers also set aside nearly $1 million over the next two years for a third party to evaluate voucher students’ academic performance—a study that has essentially been an unfunded mandate since the voucher program’s inception.
Other noteworthy items in the House education budget:
- Mirroring Senate proposal, A-F school grading system would be brought into compliance with federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and would give schools TWO grades—one based on growth, one based on performance.
- Controversial class size reduction mandate includes no additional funding to support that initiative, setting the stage for the same battle to be waged this time next year.
- Includes $1.8 million for voucher oversight agency (NC State Education Assistance Authority) to purchase software to administer the program.
- Special provision eliminates the requirement that parents must endorse voucher checks over to the private school in person, at the school.
- The controversial Achievement School District gets a facelift. The House budget renames the program the “Innovative School District” (ISD) and also included a provision that would draft more low-performing schools into the ISD; that language was eased somewhat with an amendment put forth by Rep. Rosa Gill (D-Wake).