A new program that will help low-income families afford to send their children to private schools has started accepting applications, despite harsh criticisms and legal challenges that have plagued it.
Critics of the voucher program insist it will tear money away from public schools, while supporters have hailed it as a way to give low-income families school choice.
Parent DeNille Amendola doesn’t involve herself in the sticky details of the dispute. All she cares about is how it could finally provide a “better education” for her children.
Amendola has a nine-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son who have attended Maureen Joy Charter School since kindergarten. She says the plan was to keep them enrolled until eighth grade, but lately she hasn’t been happy with her school’s performance.
“That’s when I began searching for other schools. I had my eye on private schools, but knew it wasn’t feasible to afford it with our finances,” says Amendola, who’s currently unemployed.
She heard about the private school vouchers, also known as the Opportunity Scholarship program, about three months ago when she received a flyer, and says she knew she couldn’t pass it up.
“I want to provide them [my kids] with the opportunity that I wasn’t able to have as a child, scholarships like this wasn’t available, or my mom didn’t have the knowledge,” she says.
Families that make no more than 133 percent of the amount required to qualify for free or reduced can apply for the vouchers, which cover up to $4,200 in tuition. The General Assembly appropriated $10 million for the scholarships in 2014-15.
"Siphoning Money From Cash-Strapped Schools"
Rodney Ellis, a teacher and president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, has led much of the opposition against the program, calling it an assault on public education.
“It takes away from public schools and funding that can be used to benefit our classrooms in public schools and I feel like that’s where our money should be spent, versus sending it to private schools,” he says.
Ellis says he has nothing against private schools, but has a problem with how the voucher program is funded with taxpayer dollars. With the support of NCAE and the N.C. Justice Center, he and 25 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the program.
“I think it totally violates the constitution which says that taxpayer funds should be used explicitly for funding public schools,” he says. “Either way you slice it, doesn’t matter what kind of shell games you play with the money, this money still belongs to the taxpayers to the state and we have a right to hold legislators accountable.”
The other lawsuit was filed by the North Carolina School Board Association.
The General Assembly appropriated $10 million for 2500 vouchers for this year, and will designate another $40 million for the following year. Opponents worry that the program will be expanded even further.
They say lawmakers will eventually argue that they can’t deny middle-class families similar opportunities and change the requirements, which has happened in other states.
"It's About School Choice"
But advocates of North Carolina’s program say it’s only about helping low-income families. Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, says the constitution demands equal education for all children.
“The bottom line is this – wherever you live basically is where you’re going to be zoned to that traditional public school. And for low-income families, the families we’re targeting with this program, that’s their only option, there aren’t anymore,” he said.
The state will begin awarding vouchers on March 1st – a date Amendola has had etched in her mind for months now. She says she hopes to send her kids to Durham Academy, which can cost up to $20,000 a year per student.
If she does receive a voucher, her next task will be to line up additional scholarship money from the school.
“I want my children to have the choice to be whoever they want to be when they grow up,” she says. “I don’t want them to have to restrict themselves because they didn’t have the opportunities, but here the opportunity is being offered.”