By the end of the 2016-17 academic year, North Carolina is on track to disburse roughly $24 million in taxpayer-funded school vouchers to thousands of families across the state who are using public dollars to attend private schools that are held to virtually no measures of accountability or transparency.

According to the NC State Education Assistance Authority, the state agency administering the Opportunity Scholarship program, $9.6 million has already been disbursed to families as of October 31 for tuition payments to 328 private schools across the state.

If the predictions prove to be true that all $24 million in vouchers will be paid out this year, the state will have spent nearly double what it did during the last academic year on school vouchers, which was $13.1 million. Lawmakers made changes to the program earlier this year that could have the state spending $135 million annually on school vouchers by 2026.

Top recipients of vouchers so far this year include the following schools:

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State lawmakers enacted the Opportunity Scholarships program, also known as school vouchers, back in 2013. The program gives low-income families up to $4,200 in taxpayer funds annually to spend at private schools.

Proponents of school vouchers say that the program enables low-income families to opt out of failing public schools to attend private institutions that offer better educational environments.

But critics of the program say that the vouchers siphon funds away from the underfunded public school system and sends those tax dollars to private schools without accountability and transparency measures that ensure students are indeed getting a better education.

A lengthy court battled that made its way to the NC Supreme Court in 2015 was based on the claim that the school voucher program violated the state’s constitution. A lower court judge agreed, saying “the General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.” Ultimately the Supreme Court overturned that ruling, keeping the program up and running.

To give you a sense of the kind of accountability and transparency that the school voucher program is lacking, consider the following:

  • Private schools receiving tax dollars don’t have to meet any generally accepted accreditation standards.
  • Teachers don’t have to be licensed.
  • Schools don’t have to adhere to any sort of curricular standards and are free to use teaching materials that draw heavily on biblical teachings.
  • A criminal background check is required only for the schools’ top administrator.
  • A nationally-normed standardized test must be given to students yearly (and report those findings only if enrollment is more than 25 voucher students).  The test doesn’t have to be the same, or comparable, to the tests administered in public schools.
  • Only if a school receives more than $300,000 annually is it then required to conduct a financial review by a CPA (only three of the 330 schools met the criteria last year).

One school receiving voucher funds, Star Christian Academy in Smithfield, has already received $64,762 this year. An investigation into that school found that it provided students minimal active instruction and was and continues to be housed in a small church and operated by a husband-and-wife team that has a history of bankruptcies and tax delinquencies.

To date, Star Christian Academy has received $225,652 in tax dollars since the school voucher program’s inception. 

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