Darrell Allison is on the road again, taking a final long trip to visit private schools across North Carolina. He's used to traveling - to small towns, suburbs, down east and to the mountains to talk to parents and legislators across the state.
"We like taking these jaunts, it's a little labor intensive, driving, but it really rejuvenates us," said Allison, speaking for the staff of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, or PEFNC. Allison is the recent past-president of the school choice organization.
For 13 years, the organization has advocated for the state to expand options for students beyond traditional public schools. In the beginning, Allison traveled across the state to meet parents who wanted to send their kids to charter schools, or to private schools with the help of vouchers.
"Put more than 160,000 miles on my little green Honda Accord," Allison chuckles.
Then, he went to legislators and built a coalition of supporters in the statehouse. When Republicans took majority control of the legislature in 2011, they started to make change. These days, Allison is counting his victories.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find another state that has done so much in education reform," Allison said. "Since 2011, the growth in private school has been largely because of scholarship."
By scholarship, Allison means vouchers -- tax-funded money to help pay for a child to go to a private school. North Carolina has three types of vouchers:
- The Disabilities Grant is for kids with disabilities to pay for private school or special services. It's good for up to $8,000 per year.
- The Opportunity Scholarship offers up to $4,200 per year for a kid from a low-income family to go to private school.
- The Education Savings Account was implemented this year. It is not really a savings account. It is a $9,000 grant delivered on a debit card, in which the balance can roll-over year to year. Kids with disabilities can apply to use it for private school tuition or services like in-home therapy or specialized technology.
The legislature passed laws enacting the Disabilities Grant and Opportunity Scholarship five years ago. Supporters say the vouchers have leveled the playing field for low-income and disabled kids who want to go to private schools. Meanwhile, those vouchers have troubled some public school advocates ever since they were enacted — advocates like Mark Jewell.
"I don't think it's the responsibility of the government to fund private schools. At all. Period," said Jewell.
A Change of Direction in Public Education
Jewell's career has been as an elementary teacher, mostly in Guilford County Schools. He started teaching 31 years ago in rural West Virginia. He was recruited to North Carolina in 1997, during the administration of Democratic Governor Jim Hunt. He came for the appeal of better funded schools and more support services.
"They were investing in small class sizes," Jewell said. "I had a teacher assistant when I started here in fifth grade. I was paid to tutor students after school."
Today he's the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest public school organization. Jewell says a lot of those perks that attracted him to teach in North Carolina schools have gone away.
"In 2013, we saw a change of direction in public education in North Carolina. The General Assembly gave huge tax breaks to corporations and millionaires, which left $3.5 billion on the table … and we've never recovered from it," Jewell said.
He adds that vouchers were implemented at the same time. The Association of Educators has taken a public stance against the vouchers, even challenging the Opportunity Scholarship – the state's largest voucher program – in court. Their lawyers argued that the program violated the state constitution, which guarantees a sound, basic education and one uniform school system for all. Jewell says currently, he doesn't think the state is doing that, and that vouchers are part of the problem. Jewell summarizes the argument NCAE's lawyers made in court:
"North Carolina has continued to funnel millions of dollars a year to an unaccountable school system that doesn't have to play by the same rules that a regulated public school organization does," Jewell said.
NCAE's case won in Superior Court, but the General Assembly challenged that decision. In a rare move, the case skipped over the Court of Appeals and went straight to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which in 2015, overturned the lower court's decision by one vote.
Vouchers stood. And they've been growing ever since. That makes supporters like Darrell Allison very happy.
"We say the more options you have on the table, for families, the better you're going to be able to reach and educate that child," Allison said. "It really is about that individual child, that individual family, regardless of where they are."
And others like Mark Jewell very frustrated:
"It's not to say that anybody's anti-private school, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the student across the street. It should be done with private dollars."
The whole crux of the debate is about where the money for these scholarships is coming from. Voucher opponents say the programs drain public funds away from public schools. School choice advocates believe children are entitled to the dollar, not schools.
The argument comes down to per-pupil-funding. It varies by county because of local supplemental funding. For example, Wake County Schools spends about $8,500 per student. The Opportunity Scholarship is worth half that. So voucher advocates will say that it's kind of like giving that family back some of its taxes.
But Jewell, of the Association of Educators, says it's not so simple.
"That's not how we educate. You pull resources together. Everybody pays a little bit, and it benefits the common good," Jewell says.
When a student moves from a public school to a private school, his or her local public school loses that larger amount of per-pupil funding, say $8,500, that was attached to his or her attendance.
"And once you start chiseling that away, it leaves a big dent," says Jewell.
Where's All That Money Going?
Just how big of a dent is a central question.
The state budget will add another $10 million dollars each year to the Opportunity Scholarship program, for the next 10 years — unless future legislatures change that. In 2028, the state could be paying about $145 million for the voucher. That's close to how much the state spent on the salaries of all the principals in North Carolina last year.
In Cumberland County, private schools receive more Opportunity Scholarship dollars than in any other county in the state. Bal-Perazim Christian Academy is one of those schools. The school is so unassuming, it's easy to miss from the road.
It is located on Bragg Boulevard in Fayetteville, on a strip populated by pawn shops and small businesses. A strip club is one of its nearest neighbors. The school itself is a collection of five beige trailers surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. There is no playground equipment visible. The blinds are drawn on the trailers, indicative of how much information is available about what goes on inside.
The school declined a WUNC request for a tour, citing that it would not fit in the principal's schedule. The principal is also the pastor at the church across from the asphalt parking lot where students spend their recess.
While the school's location or facilities might raise eyebrows, perhaps the bigger issue is that it is a black box. Bal-Perazim Christian Academy received more than $168,000 in tax dollars this schoolyear, with no school board, no school report card, no publicly announced testing to hold it accountable. Because it is a religious institution, it does not have to file taxes.
Allison says there is a certain level of accountability built into the program. Voucher schools receiving at least $300,000 submit some basic financial information to the state. Bal-Perazim is one of many schools exempt from that requirement. Last year the cut-off applied to 10 out of 399 schools. All participating schools must also register with the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program. Schools must also test voucher recipients using nationally-normed exams and submit a background check for the school's highest ranking administrator.
At least two schools that received Opportunity Scholarship funds have shut down due to illegal activity, but they were not closed by any state education agency. The Evelyn Mack Academy in Charlotte closed after its director faced federal charges related to human trafficking, while the Stevens Prep Academy closed after its founder was arrested on child sex charges.
"If I was a conservative taxpayer, I'd want accountability," Jewell says. "You know, what am I getting for my investment there? But we don't know."