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Lindsay Wagner

Research, analysis, and reporting on NC public education.

Are publicly-funded private school vouchers helping low-income kids? We don’t know.

The leader of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, Darrell Allison, said recently that school vouchers aren’t likely to hurt children from low-income households who use them. But he couldn’t say definitively that the voucher program actually helps these children, either. Why? Because despite the fact that North Carolina spends millions of taxpayers’ dollars each year on vouchers, we have no meaningful data that can tell us if this is an effective way to help poor students who deserve a high quality education. When...

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Employee of North Carolina’s largest voucher school pleads guilty to embezzling nearly $400,000 in state funds over eight years

Heath Vandevender is a coach, teacher and the employee tasked with managing the payroll operations of the state’s largest private school recipient of state-funded vouchers—Trinity Christian School located in Fayetteville. In a Wake County courthouse this week, Vandevender pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $400,000 in employee state tax withholdings over an eight year period while serving in his capacity at Trinity Christian. Vandevender entered into a plea deal struck with the state, whereby he will serve 3 months in prison,...

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Final budget deal nixes North Carolina’s state funded retiree health benefits for future teachers, state employees

A short provision buried deep in the budget deal passed today by the North Carolina General Assembly eliminates retiree health benefits for future teachers and state employees. As reported by NC Health News, language in the budget says indicates that all “state employees hired four years from now will not receive health benefits from the state once they retire after decades of service.” #NCGA budget provision would end health benefits for state employees who start their service after 2021 #ncpol https://t.co/UbAKIhCvtU — NC...

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House budget is silent on Senate’s super voucher proposal, pitches more accountability for voucher program already in place

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...

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Education savings accounts plan a “voucher program on steroids” designed to drain public school budgets

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...

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Charter school leaders decry “company” charter school bill, say it’s wrong for kids

A bill moving through the North Carolina legislature that would allow corporations to essentially buy spots at public charter schools for their employees’ children has a lot of folks upset—including some charter school leaders. “It’s just not the right thing for kids,” said Stephen Gay, the superintendent at East Wake Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Zebulon, about HB 800. “These are kids’ lives, and we need to be doing what’s right for them.” Drawing an analogy to old mill towns, Gay is worried that if...

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Charter school oversight board sought unanimity in recommending 15 new charter schools for 2018

North Carolina could see 15 more charter schools open in the fall of 2018—and this time, members of the oversight panel tasked with vetting the charter applications were largely unanimous in making their recommendations to the State Board of Education, a far cry from how this process went down last year. “Our board has worked hard this year to improve the review process and ensure increased alignment around quality,” said the Charter School Advisory Board’s chair, Alex Quigley. Charter school advisory board members spent the...

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NC’s lawmakers are pushing charter schools further down the path of privatization

House lawmakers pushed along a raft of proposals this week that could diminish accountability and transparency for North Carolina’s public charter school sector and restrict access to some charters in a bid to provide perks to the business community. Four House bills, which are moving rapidly through the legislative process this week so that they survive “crossover”—the date by which a bill must pass one chamber in order to have any hope for becoming law before the session’s end—would allow charter schools to...

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Is North Carolina really a destination for teachers?

When former teacher James Sadler saw a headline last week calling North Carolina a “destination for teachers,” he had a very hard time believing it. Sadler, who left a good paying teaching job in Philadelphia to follow his fiancee to North Carolina, said that when he arrived here he took one look at the teacher salary schedule and said no way. “I would’ve had to take a 50 percent pay cut,” said Sadler. And in order to just get back to last year’s salary he earned in Pennsylvania, Sadler says it would have taken him 11 years in the...

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Proposed legislation aims to improve accountability and transparency for North Carolina’s school voucher program

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...

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State’s largest voucher school has a history of tax delinquency

North Carolina’s largest recipient of private school voucher funds, Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville, has a history of delinquencies when it comes to paying federal and state taxes, court records show. The school is currently at the center of allegations that its athletic director embezzled hundreds of thousands of employee withholding dollars intended to go to the state Department of Revenue between 2008 and 2015. In July 2004, the state Revenue Department issued a Certificate of Tax Liability to Trinity Christian School’s...

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NC’s largest voucher school, embroiled in embezzlement scandal, files incomplete financial statements with state

North Carolina’s largest recipient of private school vouchers has filed a financial review that lacked basic information consistent with “generally accepted accounting principles,” according to the agency overseeing the taxpayer-funded program. Because Fayetteville’s Trinity Christian School—also currently embroiled in a separate embezzlement scandal—received more than $300,000 in voucher funds during the 2015-16 academic year, it is required to submit a financial review of their organization. According to records...

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Eleventh hour effort to save one of Charlotte’s oldest charter schools fails

A last ditch attempt to save one of the state’s oldest charter schools fell through, leaving Charlotte’s Community Charter School likely to close for good at the end of this school year. State law allows for the possibility that instead of shutting down a poor performing charter school, another nonprofit board experienced in running a charter school could “assume” that charter school’s operations and keep it alive—but under new management. The state decided to allow for that option with Community Charter School, which has...

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Despite vote to rescind federal school accountability reporting requirements, NC’s A-F school grades still won’t be federally aligned without legislative changes

You may have seen headlines lately about how U.S. lawmakers have voted to ease school accountability reporting requirements for states by nixing the Obama administration’s regulations that were written to help states comply with the federal law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But if you thought that meant North Carolina’s A-F school grading system in its current form wouldn’t have to be amended after all in order to be federally compliant—well, you’re wrong, according to the NC Department of Public...

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First review of NC’s school voucher program: accountability measures “among weakest in country”

A researcher from Duke University’s Children’s Law Clinic reviewed the first three years of North Carolina’s new school voucher program and found that the program’s accountability measures are among the weakest in the country. “The 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 “School Vouchers in North Carolina: The First Three Years.” Other key findings, as stated in the report’s executive summary: Based...

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Test scores for state’s biggest voucher school don’t provide enough information on student learning, experts say

Last year’s standardized test scores for students at the state’s largest recipient of publicly-funded school vouchers, Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville, are public now — but the information doesn’t provide parents with enough information about how good of a job the school is doing to educate students, according to an education and law expert from the North Carolina Justice Center. “These test scores don’t tell you if student learning is improving over time or if students are on track toward being college or career...

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North Carolina: Already a DeVos world

When it comes to the politics of education, 2017 is already proving to be a memorable year. Over the past couple of months, nearly all of my social media channels have been overtaken by posts that I have lumped together and labeled “DeVoUTRAGEs.” Some snippets: “She’s never been a teacher.” “She’s a plagiarist.” “She paid for her position.” “She doesn’t believe in public education.” By now, you’ve probably guessed that I’m talking about our newest U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. You’ve guessed this because it seems that...

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Private voucher school’s athletic director, accused of embezzlement, continues coaching basketball while awaiting trial

Trinity Christian’s athletic director Heath Vandevender, who is accused of embezzling nearly $400,000 in employee tax withholdings during a seven year period at the Fayetteville private school, was on the sidelines this weekend coaching Trinity’s boys basketball team, the Fayetteville Observer reported. Vandevender continues to be employed at the private religious school despite facing allegations that he “aided and abetted the corporation [the private school’s umbrella non-profit, Truth Outreach Center, Inc.] to embezzle, misapply,...

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Employee of state’s largest recipient of school voucher funds accused of embezzling nearly $400,000 in public tax dollars

The athletic director of a private religious school that has received the most publicly-funded school vouchers in the state of North Carolina was arrested this week on charges of embezzling from the school nearly $400,000 in public tax dollars, the Fayetteville Observer reports. Heath Curtis Vandevender is charged with embezzling $388,422 between Jan. 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2015, from Truth Outreach Center Inc., located in Fayetteville. Trinity Christian School, which has received nearly $1 million in publicly-funded school vouchers...

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Fired principal of Rocky Mount charter school sues board, alleges alteration of student transcripts and inflated student enrollment numbers

The Rocky Mount Telegram reported this weekend that the fired principal of Rocky Mount’s North East Carolina Prep School has sued the school’s non-profit board of directors, arguing that his dismissal came as retaliation for trying to “clean house” and correcting mistakes made in the past, which allegedly include over-reporting of student enrollment figures and alteration of student grades and/or transcripts to boost school performance rates. According to the Telegram’s education reporter, Amelia Harper, Schuck is arguing that...

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Recent legislation paves the way for huge drops in withdrawal rates for NC virtual charter schools

Top administrators for the state’s two virtual charter schools boasted 2016-17 student withdrawal rates that are a fraction of what they were in the previous year, largely due to recent legislative changes that allow the schools to remove from the equation many students who dropout for various different reasons. Reporting to the state charter oversight board Tuesday, K12, Inc.-backed North Carolina Virtual Academy (NCVA) posted a student withdrawal rate of just 5 percent for the first five months of the academic year—a...

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Private Christian schools receiving taxpayer-funded school vouchers continue to exclude students on the basis of religion and sexual identity

A review of the student handbooks of several private Christian schools in North Carolina that receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded school vouchers finds that attendance at these schools is limited to families who believe in Jesus Christ; families that do not have members who are gay, lesbian or transgender; and families who are willing to have their children undergo physical punishment at the direction of school administrators. “FCS [Fayetteville Christian School] will not admit families that engage in illicit...

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What kinds of checks and balances are in place to ensure traditional public schools don’t hand out faulty diplomas?

Part II As I discussed earlier this week, Kestrel Heights Charter School in Durham handed out 160 unearned diplomas between 2008-2016, which not only raises grave concerns about how this could have happened at one school—but whether or not this could be happening at other charter schools as well. (Check out my story here for more on that.) It also raised this question for me: can what happened at Kestrel Heights occur at traditional public schools as well? As with charter schools, the state Department of Public Instruction...

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A Durham charter school gave out more than 150 unearned diplomas over eight years.
What does this say about transparency and accountability for North Carolina’s fast-growing charter school movement?

Part I Following a lengthy internal report conducted by school officials at Durham’s Kestrel Heights Charter School, which found that 40 percent of the high school diplomas Kestrel awarded to students since 2008 were unearned, the state advisory board charged with overseeing charter schools announced last week that they believe Kestrel Heights should lose its ability to run a high school. “This cannot go without serious punishment,” said Charter School Advisory Board member Joe Maimone. “I believe this means that this group has...

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North Carolina’s school voucher program: an accountability and transparency wish list for 2017

A common refrain I hear in the course of my reporting and writing about school vouchers — a program that is set to take a large bite out of our public coffers in North Carolina in the months and years ahead — is that at the end of the day, it’s the parents who should be the enforcers of accountability for this publicly funded effort to shift state money into private schools. “Parents know what’s best for their children and will seek an adequate, decent education for their children,” said Dick Komer, an attorney who works...

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Charter industry CEO’s campaign contribution closely timed to state lawmaker’s pitch for new charter school

When Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincolnton) stood before members of the NC Charter School Advisory Board earlier this month to pitch a new charter school that would be located in his legislative district of Lincoln County, he told the oversight body that he has a unique perspective on what it would be like to open a charter school. To bolster his charter school cred, Rep. Saine pointed to his long-time relationship with a Florida-based for-profit education management organization (EMO) Charter Schools USA, which would serve as the...

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North Carolina’s A-F school grading system “not aligned” with federal law

In an update to the Charter Schools Advisory Board on Thursday, the federal policy director at the state’s Department of Public Instruction said that North Carolina’s new A-F school grading system does not align with federal regulations under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) —which means that the either the General Assembly will need to amend the law soon or the state will need to have two school accountability systems in order to comply with federal law and regulations. DPI’s Dr. Lou Fabrizio told the CSAB “that’s a...

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School privatization group launches web app that relies on A-F school grades to direct families to charter and private schools

A Raleigh-based advocacy group that is a big supporter of the state’s new school voucher program as well as charter schools launched a web application this week that relies on the state’s controversial A-F school grading system to provide information to families about their local public and private school options. Brian Jodice, a representative for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) said the web-based app has been in the works for six or seven months. “We just thought we should provide parents with a tool to...

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More than $300,000 in public school vouchers have been granted to recently closed private schools

Since 2014, WNCN reports that $342,048 worth of publicly-funded school vouchers have been funneled to private schools that are now closed. The dollars — steered through the state’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher program since its 2014 inception — were intended to give low-income children a chance to attend the schools of their families’ choice. Since its 2014 start, the program has paid $27.5 million in taxpayer funds to help families send children to private school. Of that total, $342,048 went to schools that are shuttered. CBS...

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NC virtual charter school’s dropout rate exceeds legal maximum

Students at one of the state’s two brand new virtual charter schools are dropping out at a rate that exceeds the maximum allowed by state law, according to a report authored by the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools. North Carolina Connections Academy, a virtual charter school backed by education technology giant Pearson, reported a student dropout rate of 31.3 percent for the 2015-16 academic year. State law says virtual charters can’t exceed dropout rates of 25 percent. Both of the two virtual charter schools’ dropout rates...

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Charter school oversight board to discuss virtual charter schools, new applications next week

The NC Charter School Advisory Board will meet next week, November 15-16, to begin its review of new applications made by those hoping to open a charter school in 2018. The CSAB also has a number of other key agenda items on tap for next week. They include the following: —>An update on the virtual charter school pilot program. CSAB members will discuss a draft report to the General Assembly on the new virtual charter school pilot program. You can see the draft report here, which includes the final withdrawal rates for the...

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The Costs of Care

Meredith Sawyer is an early childhood educator in Greensboro, North Carolina who has been  teaching for more than a decade. But as she reflects on the last seven years as a transitional kindergarten teacher in a child care center that has the highest quality rating the state can offer—five-stars—Sawyer realizes she’s grown tired of watching her peers meet life goals while she’s left unrewarded for her accomplishments and hard work. In a word? Sawyer is stuck. “I wait tables part time so I don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck,”...

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NC on track to spend $24 million this academic year on taxpayer-funded school vouchers

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...

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Charter school oversight board looks to grease the wheels for recommended applicants to get final approval

October’s meeting of the NC Charter Schools Advisory Board included a conversation that nearly resulted in the shutdown of a Raleigh charter school as well as a review of 32 charter schools looking to have their charters renewed for another 10 years. Members of the charter school oversight body also discussed ways to encourage the State Board of Education to look more favorably upon their recommendations for new charter schools, following the SBE’s recent decision to deny several of CSAB’s approvals that sparked outrage among...

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Latest batch of charter school hopefuls includes repeat applicants, national EMOs

Thirty-eight non-profit boards submitted charter school applications to the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools last month—an uptick from last year’s 28 but still far fewer than the flood of applications that poured in during the years just after lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011. If the applications are approved, these charter schools would open in the fall of 2018. Among the 38 applications (which can be viewed here) there are several prospective charter school operators who are pitching their schools again...

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Report suggests newer NC charter schools are performing worse than their more established counterparts

On the heels of the release of the 2016 A-F public school performance grades, officials from the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools released a report last week that provides more detailed information on charter schools’ academic performance. The data appear to indicate that newer charter schools aren’t hitting it out of the park, academically speaking—yet.   The report includes already-released data showing that during the 2015-16 school year, the entire charter school sector received grades that spanned the A-F...

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Charter advocates reeling after low number of new charter schools approved for 2017

Days after the State Board of Education voted last week to reject five of the Charter School Advisory Board’s 13 recommendations for new charter schools seeking to open in 2017, members of the charter oversight board convening in Raleigh on Tuesday expressed shock and dismay about what they perceived as disrespect by the State Board toward their expertise and protocols for determining who should be allowed to operate a charter school in North Carolina. “What are the skill sets on the State Board of Education with respect to...

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When Charter Schools Fail

Erinn Rochelle says she beat herself up for months after her sons’ charter school unexpectedly shut down during its first year of operation. “Not only did I put my kids there, I recommended that school to my friends,” said Rochelle, whose children entered the brand new StudentFirst Academy in Charlotte in 2013.

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Is North Carolina on track to weaken accountability for charter schools?

Some recently proposed changes to charter school law have raised the eyebrows of advocates for high quality, accountable charter schools. Moving through the state legislature is a proposal that would jettison a statutory requirement for charters’ performance to be reviewed every five years. Instead, the proposal would mandate that a performance review take place at some point before the expiration of a school’s charter—a change that some say could allow bad actors to fly under the radar for too long. The proposal would also...

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New law could keep bad charters in business

When members of the NC Charter School Advisory Board convened in Raleigh for their June meeting this week, they engaged in an impromptu discussion on the impact of House Bill 242, an omnibus charter school bill moving through the General Assembly that could affect how the state’s 150+ charter schools are held accountable for providing high quality education.

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Charter school oversight board recommends 13 new charter schools for 2017 opening

Thirteen charter school applications have gotten nods of approval from members of North Carolina’s charter school advisory board (CSAB), which completed a months-long review process this week. Contingent on the State Board of Education’s approval in May, the recommended charter schools could open in the fall of 2017 and bring the state’s total number of charter schools up to 171. Twenty-eight charter school hopefuls applied to open in 2017. Of those, three were withdrawn during the review process, eleven were denied and one...

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Charter schools oversight board looks toward strengthening the application process, questions charters in trouble

Members of the Charter School Advisory Board kicked off their March meeting with a lengthy discussion about how to uphold high standards while vetting new charter school applicants. Batting around the idea of putting a formal quality rating on charter school applicants’ in-person interview before the oversight board, CSAB member Eric Sanchez said this selection process is getting too subjective and the board’s decisions seem to come down to how much they like who stands before them asking to open a charter school. “If they go up...

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Tiny private school puts spotlight on voucher system’s flaws

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...

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Updates from the February meeting of the State Board of Education

While we didn’t see too many fireworks this month, February’s State Board of Ed meeting didn’t disappoint, filled with the usual mix of policy and politics. Here are a few of the hotter topics that the State Board debated this month.

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Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner

As a writer/researcher for the Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh, Lindsay’s work supports the organization’s grantees by providing research, analysis, and reporting on issues pertaining to education in North Carolina. Focus areas include charter schools, school choice, educational equity, school funding, and more.

 

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