Since its inception, North Carolina’s school voucher program has suffered from a stunning lack of transparency and accountability that should safeguard the public’s investment in private schools.
The voucher program already makes public dollars accessible to private schools that are free to discriminate by turning away students who are gay or transgender, have disabilities, or who don’t subscribe to a religious doctrine.
Voucher schools are also allowed to teach any kind of curriculum they choose, including those not meeting high standards. Most voucher schools don’t have to explain to the public how they manage tax dollars they receive.
Among the weakest nationally in accountability, North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (as it is formally known) needs more not less transparency.
Yet, the House approved a budget bill last week that removes one of the few requirements that offers accountability: the provision that some voucher schools must tell the public how their students are performing academically.
All North Carolina private schools must administer a nationally normed standardized test of their choosing once per year in certain grades, and it appears that practice would continue under this House budget provision.
There has been an additional requirement that schools with 25 or more voucher students (nearly a third of all private voucher schools) must make those standardized test results on the aggregate a public record – and that one is on the brink of extinction.
Because a school can choose which standardized test to administer, comparing student outcomes between schools hasn’t provided the public a whole lot in the way of transparency and accountability. Looking at test results between a school that administers the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and a school that administers the TerraNova doesn’t give a good understanding of which school is doing a better job of ensuring students are progressing toward academic goals because those outcomes aren’t comparable.
The requirement has at least provided a glimpse into how students fared at the state’s larger voucher schools.
House lawmakers want to end this requirement, and in its place create a Nonpublic School Information Dashboard with a brief summary of a voucher school’s standard testing protocol, including specific tests and assessments used by the school (but not outcomes); graduation rates of students who receive vouchers (there are no uniform standards for graduation, by the way); and information on the school’s accreditation status (accreditation is not a requirement to receive taxpayer dollars).
Schools are free to voluntarily post more information to the public, if they so choose–but they would not be required to do so.
The House budget includes other proposed changes to the Opportunity Scholarship Program that raise concern include:
• letting unspent voucher dollars be redirected to a nonprofit organization for marketing and advertising to promote the voucher program ($500,000);
• enabling unspent voucher dollars to be redirected to the Division of Nonpublic Education for data collection from nonpublic schools to maintaining a website to provide information to students and parents helping them select private schools;
• no longer requiring that the agency overseeing school vouchers file annual reports with the legislature and N.C. Department of Public Instruction that detail learning gains or losses of students receiving vouchers, and competitive effects on public school performance on standardized tests as a result of the voucher program; and
• eliminating a third party evaluation of the program intended to produce annual reports.
Legislators should require that private voucher schools develop standards for their curricula and administer state assessments or limit nationally-normed tests they can use to three that are highly regarded. Researchers could then compare voucher and public school students’ academic performance in a meaningful way.
The House budget still requires that private voucher schools receiving more than $300,000 annually in taxpayer dollars undergo a financial review that is made public, but it only captures a small percentage of schools that receive public dollars. It isn’t as rigorous as a financial audit.
The lack of transparency and accountability for publicly-funded private schools is a real head scratcher when you consider how closely the state scrutinizes public schools.
The legislatiure sets the precise date that all public schools must start and end the school year, and the number of instructional hours each year must include.
The state created and mandates dozens of standardized tests starting as early as pre-K, the results all publicly reported.
Finances and academic outcomes of public schools are held to a very high standard by state leaders every day at a time when public school state investments fall short of where they were a decade ago when adjusted for inflation and student growth.
For some reason, we don’t expect the same for private schools in which we are investing more and more state dollars in the name of better educational options.
It’s past time that North Carolina does better because families and taxpayers have a right to know.
Lindsay Wagner is a senior writer and researcher at the NC Public School Forum.