Private school vouchers split many

Feb. 16, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

The issue of using taxpayer dollars to provide vouchers for children to attend private school has divided many in North Carolina, with strong opinions prevalent on both sides of the argument and a lawsuit now filed over the matter.

In Lee County, it has even divided private school leaders.

Bill Carver, headmaster at Grace Christian School, is a strong proponent of the vouchers. He says they will increase the diversity of private schools and give parents options that they never would have had for their children otherwise.

Stephen Coble, chief administrator at Lee Christian School, does not like the idea of vouchers. He says he doesn’t support the cuts to public schools that paid for the vouchers, nor could he support increased taxes to keep public school funding at the same levels.

Next year is the first year vouchers will be available, with about 2,400 available statewide thanks to an appropriation of $10 million, which will give low income families $4,200 a year toward tuition. That wouldn’t pay for an elementary or middle school student ($4,584 at Grace or $4,440 at Lee Christian) or for a high school student ($4,992 at Grace or $4,860 at Lee Christian) next school year, but it would come close.

In addition to their leaders’ opinion on the vouchers, Grace Christian and Lee Christian are also taking different approaches on using them as a recruiting tool.

Coble said that he doesn’t plan to actively recruit more students to the school using vouchers, although he said if parents disagreed with him he’d certainly listen. But his logic, he said, is simple: There’s no room for more students.

“I don’t want to sound too smug about it because what we have, the Lord has given us,” Coble said. “But we’re full. We were full last year, and we’re full this year.”

At Grace, however, efforts to bring in voucher-funded students are in full swing. Carver said a staff member has been trained as a specialist in the new law and is helping anyone who has questions, and on Tuesday night, the school will be holding an open house for any family interested in trying to get a voucher to attend the school.

The open house will be from 7-8 p.m. Tuesday at the school, located at 2601 Jefferson Davis Highway in Sanford. It will include a tour of campus and individual classrooms as well as chances to speak with teachers and students.

Carver said the school is encouraging anyone who might be eligible for a voucher to come out — which includes public school students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, as well as students from either public or private schools, and who are from any income level, who have a learning disability and an individualized educational plan (IEP).

“We’re basically giving (qualifying families) an opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and that’s why I’m an advocate for the vouchers,” Carver said. “And interestingly enough, one of the criticisms of private schools is we’re too discerning about who we enroll. This is a way of addressing that.”

Critics, however, have pointed out that private schools in North Carolina don’t have the same regulations as public schools — there are no requirements about what is actually taught in the classroom, and teachers don’t have to be certified or even undergo background checks.

Some have also argued that using government funding for Christian schools, which comprise the majority of private schools in North Carolina, would also violate the Constitutional promise of no government-sponsored religion. Several other states have similar voucher programs, although the Louisiana Supreme Court did declare that state’s program unconstitutional last May.

Yet Carver said that in the face of all the opposition, he’s hopeful the program will actually be expanded in the future, as legislative leaders have said is their intention. He said that by actively going after these vouchers, Grace is letting state leaders know the program is appreciated.

“What we’re trying to do, quite frankly, is send a message to the legislature that there are people interested in this, and we don’t want to see it die,” he said.

Coble, however, said he sees it a different way: Some parents, regardless of income level, want a private school education for their children. Others don’t. But those who do will find a way to make it work — and many already have, without government assistance. He said one unintended consequence is that families struggling and sacrificing to pay for private school would be harmed if taxes were raised to pay for the cuts to public education caused by the vouchers.

“We’re not a rich private school,” Coble said. “I have folks that drive up in cars that are 10 years old, and they have three or four youngsters in the school. Some of them are working two jobs just to cover their children’s education because they believe in what they’re getting. And for them to turn around and have to pay extra taxes to support the public school system, that strikes me as a little unfair.”