Commentary

Commentary: The ugly truth about school vouchers

February 21, 2014 

A commitment to strong public schools is not only a moral, but also an economic cornerstone of our state. Our state constitution guarantees every child the opportunity to “receive a sound basic education,” and further ensures that public funds for education are to be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

Despite that clear mandate, the legislature passed a budget last session that moves more than $10 million in taxpayer money from our public schools to private schools in the name of “opportunity” for low-income and minority elementary and secondary school students. On Feb. 1, the State Education Assistance Authority began accepting applications for the vouchers; it will begin awarding them on March 1.

Because the voucher program was included in the budget, it was hidden from the public scrutiny it would have received had it been a stand-alone bill. Its proponents were never forced to explain the fact that, in states with similar programs, student achievement at the private schools is no better, and often worse, than in the public schools. In fact, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, whose voucher programs are the country’s longest running, traditional public school students outperform voucher students on available proficiency measures. Under N.C.’s voucher law, such analysis may not even be possible, because many participating private schools will not have to provide information to the state about student achievement.

What we do know is that private schools that participate in the program do not require students to take state proficiency exams, teachers to be licensed, or schools to issue report cards. We know that the private schools that will receive our tax dollars, unlike our public schools, are permitted to discriminate against students on the basis of race, gender, family income or wealth, disability, and religion.

We also know the historical links between racism and private schools. In 1964, 83 private schools enrolled approximately 9,500 students in N.C. But from 1968 to 1972 – when advocates and the federal government began to enforce meaningful school desegregation – the state jumped from 174 private schools and 18,000 students, to 263 schools and over 50,000 students. Surging enrollment in non-public schools was often concentrated in areas with high concentrations of African-American students , and the segregative legacy of these private schools and academies continues to this day:

Bertie County is 62 percent African American. Lawrence Academy was founded in Bertie County in 1968. Its student body is 98 percent white.

Halifax County is 53 percent African-American. Halifax Academy and Hobgood Academy were both founded in 1969. Halifax Academy is 98 percent white; Hobgood Academy is 95 percent white.

Hertford County is over 60 percent African-American. Ridgecroft School, founded in 1968, is 97 percent white.

Northampton County is 58 percent African-American, but Northeast Academy, established in 1966, is 99 percent white.

It is a twisted irony that the leaders of the voucher movement claim a racial justice rationale for their scheme. Their manipulative yet strategic decision to use African Americans to advocate for vouchers began in 2000. Leading voucher advocates John Coons and Stephen Sugarman declared that school-choice coalitions “must include and feature actors who are identified publically with groups that advertise their concern for the disadvantaged. The leadership must visibly include racial minorities of both sexes and prominent Democrats…. The conservative commitment to the project is necessary but should remain mute until the coalition has secured leadership whose party affiliation, social class or race – preferably all three – displays what the media will interpret as concern for the disadvantaged.”

And so it went in N.C. The private entities who profit from privatizing our tax dollars have not been made to answer for the racist history of their legislation, nor have they addressed the voucher program’s total lack of accountability standards and protections against discrimination and prejudice that we as a people have determined must apply to our educational institutions. Thankfully, a growing number of school boards – 69 and counting – parents, teachers and civil rights organizations have asked our judiciary to hold the state accountable for abdicating the cornerstone that our constitution explicitly protects. On February 17, 2014, the North Carolina Superior Court denied the State’s motion to dismiss those two lawsuits. On February 21, the court will hear the plaintiffs’ motion to stop implementation of the voucher program.

If our constitution means anything to us, we have a responsibility to defend every student’s right to a sound public education. At this moment, that responsibility includes rejecting efforts to privatize education in North Carolina.

Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin are staff attorney and managing attorney, respectively, at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

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