Controversial bill has support among Dems and the GOP
Some call it opportunity; others say it’s anything but.
House Bill 944, otherwise known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, has been the source of controversy and debate on both sides of the political aisle in the North Carolina Legislature. If approved, the bill would divert funds from public school budgets and invest them in a voucher program, providing up to $4,200 a year for eligible public school students to attend private schools.
“I am encouraged that the members of the House Education Committee stood with parents and justice by passing the Opportunity Scholarship Act,” State Rep. Marcus Brandon, a black Democrat who is a primary sponsor of HB 944, said following the House Education Committee’s approval of it on May 28. “We are one step closer to creating the opportunity and access for thousands of parents across the state.”
Proponents of the bill, many of whom are conservative Republicans, say it would allow low income students an unprecedented opportunity to reap the benefits of a private education.
“Today’s passage of House Bill 944 by the House Education Committee was for that parent and the hundreds of thousands of other low-income mothers and fathers across our state who desire to provide a quality education for their children but are prohibited by their income,” said Darrell Allison, president of the pro-voucher organization Parents for Educational Freedom, in a statement.
Dissenters argue that the project will cripple an already struggling public school system and fail to provide for the poorest students, whose families won’t be able to bridge the gap between the voucher and the actual cost of tuition, which exceeds $19,000 annually at some local schools. The NC Justice Center, which bills itself as “a leading progressive research and advocacy organization” with a mission of eliminating poverty statewide, was vocal in its opposition of the bill, which it said would siphon $100 million out of public schools over the next three years.
Dr. Don Martin, the outgoing superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, vehemently opposes the bill. He says the idea that its implementation will save school systems money is laughable, because the operating costs for the overall system will likely remain the same, while financial support from the state, which is allotted based on the number of students the system serves, will go down.
“People say that it’s going to save the schools money – give me a break,” he scoffed. “They just don’t know how schools operate.”
Though funding is an issue, the bigger concern is that the students who take advantage of the voucher system will be entering school environments that have far fewer regulatory requirements, Martin said, adding that oftentimes in private schools, criminal record checks are not required for positions below the headmaster level and teacher qualifications requirements are often less stringent than that of the public school system. Martin, who helmed WS/FCS for nearly two decades, questioned whether a voucher system would positively impact achievement levels for the students who participate in the program. There are already public school measures in place, he added, for parents who are unhappy with their child’s school in the local system’s school choice plan.
“I just can’t, ideologically or personally, see taking state taxpayer money and giving it to a private school with very minimal accountability,” he said. “…I can’t find any argument that would support a voucher system.”
State Sen. Earline Parmon, a member of the Education/Higher Education Senate Standing Committee, says she also has grave concerns about the bill, which she said will just take money out of public education.
“People may say it’s not the best, it needs improvement – I can agree with that – but it is the only system that provides for every child to get a sound education,” the former charter school founder said of the public school system.
While the vouchers may offset or cover the cost of tuition at a select few private schools – and many opponents of the bill say it will cause tuition fees to rise across the board – Parmon contends that private school will still be out of reach for the vast majority of low income children.
“When we hear about House Bill 944, it sounds great, but in fact, it’s very limited in the number of people who will benefit from it,” she said. “It does not take into account that we are only talking about tuition. Many times, there’s a requirement to pay for lunch, or transportation, and if parents are not able to do that, they’re still knocked out.”
Forsyth County’s Ed Hanes is one of four co-sponsors of the controversial bill. Hanes, a Democrat, said he signed on to support the bill because the initial version that was presented to him was “dangerous” and he wanted to leverage his involvement as a Democrat (making the bill’s support bipartisan) to try and water it down. Hanes says the most recent version of the bill is a big improvement over its predecessor, which he said had an income eligibility requirement that would have allowed too many upwardly-mobile families to take coveted voucher spots. Hanes said that the version he and Brandon sponsored corrects that.
“It was the lesser of two evils, and I just didn’t think that the people of my district sent me to Raleigh to legislate only the good bills,” Hanes said. “This was one bill that desperately needed legislation.”
Hanes, who broke party lines in his support of the bill, said he has “taken a lot of hits” for his position, but he maintains that he is supporting the bill out of concern for the state’s most vulnerable students.
“I think charter schools, magnet schools, tax credits or vouchers, I think they’re all part of the million piece puzzle of how we need to think about educating our poorest students,” he said.
Tuesday, though, it appeared that Hanes was having second thoughts about supporting the bill. He moved to have it removed from the House Budget, where it was placed in lieu of having it voted on as a freestanding bill – the method Hanes prefers.
“Because it was difficult, they tried to just jam it into the budget … that’s a line in the sand for me,” he said. “You cannot quash public debate like that. The people deserve to have their voices heard.”
Hanes’ amendment was slated to be voted on as The Chronicle went to press. If it fails and the budget passes, the vouchers move one step closer to becoming a reality in the 2013-14 school year.