RALEIGH — A school voucher program that uses taxpayer dollars to help low-income students attend religious and private schools is getting mixed reviews in Robeson County after the program’s constitutionality was recently upheld by the state’s highest court.
A long-standing legal dispute on whether or not funding private schools with taxpayer dollars is constitutional was settled July 23 in a 4-3 decision in N.C. Supreme Court, with the majority ruling the program is constitutional. In the 2014-2015 school year, lawmakers gave around $10 million for the vouchers, and Senate leaders have proposed increasing the vouchers to more than $15 million this year.
The vouchers, also known as the Opportunity Scholarships, are provided to students who come from low-income homes, live in foster care or have been adopted within the last year.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a private elementary school costs an average of $7,770 a year, and a private high school costs around $13,030 a year. Most private schools in Robeson County costs less than $6,000 to attend for a year. The vouchers provide around $4,200 per family.
State Rep. Garland Pierce voted against, saying he worries that the schools are not regulated on what material that they teach.
“I would admit that there are some children who could probably benefit, but I did not support it in the assembly,” Pierce said. “There will be no oversight on how they operate. But the law has spoken and I hope for the best.”
The ruling comes a few weeks after the Senate proposed a state budget with no funds for driver’s education programs and dwindling money for teacher assistants, prompting the temporary cancellation of driver’s education courses across North Carolina, including in Robeson County.
Pierce said that he believes that taxpayers would rather have their taxes fund public schools because they could have a say in how their money is used — an opinion shared by some Robeson County residents who spoke with The Robesonian for a recent poll. He said that private schools can be “selective on who they choose to attend their school,” which leaves room for them to reject poor or less-educated students.
Steve Hagen, headmaster of Highlander Academy in Red Springs, said that the Opportunity Scholarship won’t change the way that the school operates.
“We may have one or two new students, but we will still hold the highest academic standards for our students,” Hagen said.
A secretary at Riverside Christian Academy in Lumberton said that, because the school is so small, the extra money could help both school enrollment as well as parents who wish to give their children an alternative education.
James Watts, who is the headmaster at Antioch Christian Academy, said he wants to make sure that the ruling doesn’t mean staff will have to compromise on curriculum.
“I think it has a possibility of helping people. This is one of the poorest counties in the state, and some people may want to take advantage of alternative schooling for their children,” Watts said. “ A lot of federal money comes with what I like to call baggage. Once we review what all that would entail, we may be able to help people.”
Critics worry what effect the voucher program might have on funding for public education. Pierce summed up concerns about the program by asking “is this really an attempt to dismember public education?”
“This decision will continue the damage being done to our public schools and students by allowing private vouchers to drain money from our already underfunded schools. We believe the constitution is clear; public funds for education should be used exclusively for public schools,” Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said in a statement after the court ruling.
Gabrielle can be reached at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @news_gabbie.