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'Specific dismantling': Public school educators, legislators react to shift to private vouchers

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For decades, the N.C. General Assembly has debated the amount and uses of funding for North Carolina public schools — and recently, in the face of legal requirements to increase public school funding, Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly have moved to refocus funding measures toward charter and private schools.

Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham), the N.C. Senate president pro temporeconfirmed late last month that the state legislature expanded private school vouchers in the state budget by cutting down on public school funding — he said the General Assembly's current plan reroutes funds to private schools when students join from public schools.

School vouchers redirect tax dollars allocated for public education to subsidize tuition at private schools. In 2013, North Carolina passed House Bill 269, which implemented two voucher programs in the state — the Opportunity Scholarship program and the Education Student Accounts program for children with disabilities. 

Although the Opportunity Scholarship Program was originally created to help low-income public school students afford to attend private schools, starting with the 2024-2025 school year, there are no income-based eligibility requirements. 

The lack of an income cap on the program means families earning above the program's maximum income bracket will be able to receive vouchers of $3,360 up to the cost of tuition and fees.

Jeffrey Fuss, the social studies department chair at Enloe Magnet High School — a public high school in Wake County, said giving high-income families state money further exacerbates issues because it takes funding from public schools when the families could have afforded private schools without state funding helping them to do so.

“We’re decreasing public funding for our already struggling public schools to provide arts programs, extracurriculars [and] after school programs for our students, athletics," he said.

Since schools that take vouchers generally do not serve students with higher education-related costs — including students with disabilities or multilingual learners — public school costs will increase, Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center, said.  But there is no corresponding funding increase to compensate, he said.

On top of the voucher program, in February 2023, Berger and N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland, Rutherford) filed a suit to block funding for the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, also known as the Leandro Plan. The court-ordered funding plan from the long-running Leandro case aims to provide North Carolina students with a sound, basic education.

When a student leaves a public school for a private school, the district’s budget is reduced by the average cost of the student — which means the cost of education for the district increases, Nordstrom said.

Nordstrom said things are especially hard in rural districts, which are facing declining enrollment rates. Since those districts have smaller budgets and are more geographically spread out, he said, they have less flexibility to manage the budget pressures that come with declining enrollment.

Getting capital expenses to maintain buildings is another issue schools are facing, Fuss said. He said that in the past year at Enloe, the HVAC system broke, which led to his classroom reaching temperatures of up to 85 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. It took two weeks to get it fixed and had a detrimental effect on student learning, he said. 

“That's just another way in which we're doing our children a huge disservice — when they are being sent to school buildings that don't have proper air circulation or school buildings that have mold, school buildings that have asbestos,” N.C. Rep. Allen Buansi (D-Orange) said.

Buansi said the funding that has been diverted from public schools could be used to increase school employee salaries and fund new positions for school counselors or mental health professionals. 

Fuss said the cuts to public education has created a lack of resources for school psychologists and school nurses. At Enloe High School, they only have one of each, and they are shared between other schools, he said.

“It seems like there's a specific dismantling of the public school system within the state of North Carolina,” he said.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article included an attribution to Berger that could have been misinterpreted to say the General Assembly plans to further expand the Opportunity Scholarship program. Legislative leaders have confirmed no such plans. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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