When lawmakers enacted North Carolina’s private school voucher program in 2014, their goal was to provide access to more educational options for children from low-income families—with the hope that private education could ultimately improve poor childrens’ odds at success in life.
But what led proponents in the General Assembly to take a gamble on the idea of vouchers was not data-driven evidence of the program’s effectiveness elsewhere—it was something else, said former lawmaker Charles Jeter, who now works as a lobbyist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
“At the time the legislation was passed, there were little data on the effectiveness of these programs and many legislators were encouraged by the anecdotal evidence that was available,” said Jeter, who voted in favor of vouchers while he was still in the General Assembly.
Stories, not evidence, convinced lawmakers to hitch their wagons to the idea that if we put public funds into private educational programs and required next to nothing from these schools in the way of oversight and accountability, it would somehow all work out.
Charles Jeter regrets that gamble now.
In a column written for the Charlotte Observer titled, “I voted for school vouchers. Now I know I was wrong,” Jeter points out that North Carolina is slated to expand the voucher program considerably over the next ten years, going from a program that had an annual investment of $10 million to an annual investment of $145 million by 2027.
“That’s a lot of money that North Carolina will spend supporting a voucher system that every major study has shown fails at these programs’ core purpose: providing better educational outcomes for our children. All of these studies show that vouchers have, in fact, created worse educational outcomes,” said Jeter.
Jeter’s talking about a spate of research that has come out over the past few years indicating that school voucher programs around the country are failing to live up to their promise of pulling kids up and out of academic despair. That goes for North Carolina too, where a Duke researcher finds that the voucher program has been unsuccessful in promoting better academic results for the children whose private school tuition is supported by the vouchers.
It doesn’t help that the original voucher legislation did not include measures that would guarantee families—and taxpayers—that their public dollars would be redirected to high quality private schools. Nowhere in the law can you find curricular standards, a requirement that teachers hold any credential beyond a high school degree, or language that would provide for rigorous financial oversight of taxpayers’ funds, among other critical omissions of standards that could go toward providing some assurance of quality.
And so, it appears, some lawmakers want to make some changes in the hopes that more transparency and accountability for the program will right this ship.
A bill filed in the General Assembly by a group of Democratic lawmakers would require participating voucher schools to be accredited by either a national or regional accrediting agency, or the State Board of Education.
Currently private schools recognized by the state of North Carolina — those receiving vouchers or not — don’t have to be accredited. To gain accreditation, schools typically undergo a rigorous process that examines schools’ academic standards, governance processes and financial health.
There is nothing in the voucher law to assure taxpayers that their money is being sent to private schools that have high quality curricula or academic standards that prepare students for college or careers. Accreditation would be a step toward ensuring private voucher dollars are put to good use.
Another bill filed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers would limit the choices of nationally normed standardized tests voucher schools must administer annually to four. This move would make it somewhat easier to compare voucher schools’ academic performance and would ensure that schools are using a reputable and rigorous assessment mechanism. This bill in its current form, however, would not make it so that taxpayers and families would not be able to compare a private school’s academic performance against that of their local public school.
In addition, the bill would also lower the threshold for which schools must make public the results of the standardized tests. Previously, a school had to have at least 25 voucher students enrolled, and this bill would lower that number to ten.
Lawmakers supporting improved accountability and transparency for the school voucher program are running out of time. The last day for a bill to be heard in committee — and survive past that deadline — is Thursday, April 27.