Despite lack of standards and accountability, NC ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ program is poised to grow

 

Star Christian Academy, a K-12 private school, occupies two rooms in the back of New Generation Christian Church in Smithfield. According to a former student, it has just three teachers for the 13 grades, and they provide 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.

Nonetheless, Star Christian has received more than $75,000 in state funds since 2014 through the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarships program, created by the legislature in 2013. It provides low-income families with vouchers worth $4,200 per year that can be applied to tuition at private schools.

There is nothing to prevent schools such as Star Christian from continuing to receive the state money. The law establishing the program contains no meaningful standards for accountability or transparency in terms of how public funds are spent. It sets no minimum qualifications for teachers (except that they must have a high school diploma), no requirements regarding the curriculum, and no means of assessing student performance.

One of the Opportunity Scholarships law’s few requirements is that the head of a private school that receives voucher money undergo a national criminal background check. But such a background check would not – and did not – reveal that Star Christian’s head of school, Mohammad Haleem, and his wife, Alicia Allen, have filed for bankruptcy three times since 1997. Court documents also show that they failed to pay at least $41,000 in taxes to the federal government and the state of Virginia.

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Hayley Gilbert, who attended Star Christian last year with the aid of an Opportunity Scholarships voucher, had mostly positive things to say about the school, whose purpose, according to its handbook, is to “uphold a standard of academic excellence with its foundation firmly based on God’s Word, the Bible.”

“They really worked with me,” said Hayley. It was her senior year in high school, and now she attends community college.

Her mother, Angela Gilbert, also praised the school. “My daughter has ADHD, and she gets down sometimes,” she said. “She also gets mad sometimes. So they worked with us on this situation, and they gave her a place to work through all of that.”

Star Christian, as Hayley described, was set up in the back of New Generation Christian Church on Wilson Mills Road in Smithfield. In addition to the head of the school, Haleem, and his wife, Allen, Hayley said there were three other teachers there on a regular basis. One worked with the high school students in one room, and another teacher worked with the elementary and middle school children in another room. The third teacher floated, doing arts and music, Hayley said.

“It was kind of crowded, that is my one complaint,” said Hayley, who estimated that total enrollment was about 15 to 20 students. “But I think we had enough room.” (According to public records, 20 students enrolled at the school with state scholarship money for 2015-16.)

Hayley went on to explain how school worked at Star Christian. There were never any teacher-led instructional periods. Students were expected to work at their own pace in their books or online, and when they “ran into hard times,” teachers were on hand to help them push through and then move on.

“We pretty much just did our own thing,” said Hayley, who cannot remember exactly what kind of curriculum or textbooks she used at the school.

According to its handbook, Star Christian uses the “School of Tomorrow” curriculum, which is published by the company Accelerated Christian Education (A.C.E.) and is widely used by private Christian schools and Christian homeschoolers. The curriculum uses a “Biblical literalist approach” and has been criticized by education researchers at Arizona State University and Virginia Tech for its reliance on rote memorization and failure to encourage the development of scholarship and critical thinking skills.

But it’s impossible to know which textbooks and online materials Star Christian Academy uses from A.C.E. because the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarships law doesn’t require the school to make that information public.

The law also does not require private schools to disclose what kinds of teachers they employ (and no teacher need have more than a high school diploma) and how well their students are faring in their classrooms unless they have more than 25 students who use the taxpayer-funded vouchers.

I have made multiple requests to visit Star Christian Academy and to interview Haleem and Allen about the education they offer. They denied my requests and threatened to call local law enforcement if I tried to visit uninvited.

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Star Christian Academy is just one private school among nearly 400 across North Carolina – most of them with religious affiliations – that have received Opportunity Scholarships money since 2014, when state lawmakers authorized the program. With this law, roughly $10 million in public funds has been earmarked on an annual basis for low-income families to use at private schools, and the program is scheduled to more than double by next year.

Supporters of the scholarships say that poor families whose children aren’t doing well in public schools deserve access to a private education alternative.

Opponents, however, say the program siphons money from a uniform system of free public schools that is constitutionally guaranteed to all – and which is suffering from years of disinvestment by state lawmakers. North Carolina now sits near the bottom in national rankings on per pupil expenditures.

The critics are also quick to point out the law’s weaknesses when it comes to ensuring any kind of accountability, and the lack of standards for teacher qualifications or curriculum. The schools also are free to discriminate when it comes to which students they allow to enroll.

Soon after the law was enacted, public education supporters sued the state, claiming that the voucher program violated the state constitution. Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood agreed with the complainants, declaring the program unconstitutional in 2014 and saying from the bench that “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.”

The state’s appeal made it to the state Supreme Court, where the conservative majority voted 4-3 to overturn Hobgood’s ruling and uphold the voucher program, saying in effect that publicly funded private schools have no obligation to provide students with a sound basic education.

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Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield whose district includes Star Christian, says he did drop by the school once, and he was not happy with what he saw. He told fellow lawmakers in an education committee hearing last fall that it wasn’t fit for taxpayer dollars.

“I’d like to see some oversight that we just don’t have,” Daughtry said in an interview last week. “This place [Star Christian] is a two-room schoolhouse for grades K-12. I don’t like this, and we need some more oversight. The parents need to know what they are getting into.”

The 2013 Opportunity Scholarships statute designated the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA) as the agency tasked with overseeing the school voucher program.

Low-income families send their applications to the SEAA for approval to receive vouchers for use at private schools. The agency is required by law to verify the eligibility of a random sample of at least 6 percent of all applicants.

Then, the agency must ensure that the private schools receiving voucher funds are compliant with what is widely regarded as a weak law.

Elizabeth McDuffie, head of the state agency administering the school voucher program, says its up to the SEAA to administer the law, period.

“The State Education Assistance Authority administers the grants programs for students attending North Carolina nonpublic schools under the parameters established by the NC General Assembly,” McDuffie said via email. “If a school meets the statutorily defined criteria for the program, the school is eligible to participate. SEAA does not have the authority to change the requirements for school participation.”

Private schools receiving taxpayer dollars must do the following:

  • Provide documentation for required tuition and fees;
  • Conduct a criminal background check for the staff member with the highest decision-making authority (no one else at the school is required to go through a criminal background check);
  • Provide to the parent or guardian an annual written explanation of a student’s progress, including the student’s scores on standardized achievement tests;
  • Administer once a year a nationally normed standardized test;
  • Provide to the SEAA the school’s graduation rates;
  • If a school receives more than $300,000 in scholarship grants, then that school must undergo a financial review with a CPA
  • If a school enrolls more than 25 voucher students, then that school must report to the SEAA the aggregate standardized test data;
  • Meet the fire, safety and sanitation standards established by state and local authorities; and
  • Keep accurate student attendance records and immunization records on file at its office.

Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the NC School Boards Association, says the law fails to provide sufficient oversight and accountability.

“Without information on what is being taught, who is teaching and performance outcomes, North Carolina taxpayers are kept in the dark about whether limited resources are being used in an effective manner or not,” said Winner. “It is an anomaly in taxpayer funded programs to have so little oversight, standards, and accountability. Lawmakers need to address curriculum standards, teacher licensure and most importantly, create a measure to ensure that students are actually getting an education.”

The law requires the head of a private school that receives voucher money to pass a national criminal background check, but it does not set any standards for financial competence. So as far as the state is concerned, it is not a problem that Star Christian’s head of school, Mohammad Haleem, and his wife, Alicia Allen, have filed for bankruptcy three times – in Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina – since 1997.

The Virginia and North Carolina petitions for bankruptcy show debts totaling more than $2.2 million and list well over 100 creditors. Full court documents for Haleem’s 1997 Louisiana bankruptcy petition, which was filed when he went by the name Clarence Lee Allen, were not available by publication time.

North Carolina court records also show that the couple failed to pay $14,492 in taxes to the federal government and $27,325 in taxes to the state of Virginia during the mid-2000s. The records list numerous unpaid debts that include student loans, medical expenses, credit card expenses and utilities.

There are also several debts the couple lists in their North Carolina bankruptcy filing that are to individuals for large sums, in some cases more than $100,000. Many appear to be failed real estate deals, says Raleigh bankruptcy attorney Billy Brewer.

“Since it appears the debts are to a significant degree tied up in real estate transactions, but that many of the creditors are individuals, rather than institutional creditors, it is very possible that these individuals were investors in the real estate ventures or non-institutional lenders who helped the debtors to stay afloat for a while,” said Brewer.

Haleem was a licensed real estate agent in Virginia from 2004 to 2006, according to the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. He headed a Clayton-based business called Wealth Legacy, LLC from 2012 to 2015, according to papers filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State.

Reached by email, Haleem did not dispute his history of bankruptcy and failure to pay back taxes. Instead, he emphasized the importance of telling “the whole story,” which includes his service of six years in the U.S. Coast Guard as a commissioned officer and his past experiences as an educator.

“I have been a public school educator and have devoted my life to educating children in both the public and private sector; though I possess degrees in engineering, accounting and business and could have pursued more lucrative opportunities in those fields,” said Haleem.

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Lawmakers who support the Opportunity Scholarships program have said that it is ultimately up to parents to make the best choice for their children. If a particular school fails the sniff test and turns out a poor academic choice, then the parents will leave that school.

But Smithfield lawmaker Daughtry wants to see more accountability. Parents should be able to find out more about a private school before they jump in with taxpayer dollars.

“You need to know what you’re buying in the market,” said Daughtry. “You need a chance to drive the car before you buy it.”

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Lindsay Wagner conducts research, analysis, and reporting on education for Fletcher Foundation, directly supporting the organization’s grantees. Previously, she covered education as a reporter for N.C. Policy Watch.

 

(Top photo provided by Ricky Leung/N.C. Policy Watch)

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