Over the past decade, North Carolina’s education system has been one of the state’s biggest concerns. It is notorious for having broadly-defined legislation and underfunding certain programs, which has led to numerous accounts of fraud and poor test results compared to the rest of the nation. With National School Choice Week having recently been held, it gave North Carolinians the opportunity to see the major faults within the state’s school choice sector, which includes charter and magnet schools.
School choice, by design, is intended to be an academic alternative for students who are failing in the public school system. Charter schools are created to provide these students with smaller classes and more individual attention in hopes that their testing performance will improve. The end goal for these students is that they will soon be able to adequately perform in the public school system. Funding for charter schools comes from both the private sector and state where the state bases funding solely on student enrollment; the more students a school has, the more funding the school will receive. Up until 2011, there was a 100-student cap on charter schools. In 2011, the cap was lifted and the amount of charter schools in North Carolina grew exponentially.
There are currently 173 charter schools in NC, educating more than 100,000 students, with two of these schools being fully online. On paper, these charter school students test roughly the same as public school students, but more analysis revealed that there is greater variability in testing performance among charter schools. The overall performance of charter schools has also drastically declined primarily due to the large amount of schools opened in 2011 or after. Since the 100-student cap was lifted, people have taken advantage of the state funding based on school enrollment. There have been several cases of fraud and embezzlement, yet hardly no repercussions or legislation enacted to stricten the school choice sector. Legislators believe that charter schools are still a viable educational opportunity, and want to support those who believe they can properly teach students who struggle academically.
Also part of the school choice sector are national voucher programs, with two being in North Carolina: Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) and Disabilities Grant Program (DGP). The first helps students from families that are a certain percentage below the national poverty line; the second helps students with disabilities be able to afford private school. Both programs award millions of dollars but require little background information on the students. In fact, the qualifications to receive these awards are some of the most slack in the country. There have been numerous cases of fraud, including students receiving more than one award, which is against the vouchers’ policies.
For the upcoming 2018-2019 school year, North Carolina will implement another program, the Personal Education Savings Account (PESA). This program will award up to $9,000 for qualifying students to spend on their education, and will give students and their families full access to a debit card and savings account. It is not surprising that PESA, like the other programs, is broadly-defined and allows for people to easily find loopholes. With it being projected to give more than $3 million in its first year, lawmakers should be aware of cases of fraud and embezzlement.
In theory, school choice is an ideal way of supporting students who struggle academically and financially to improve their primary and secondary education. However, there is a defining key word: ideal. Legislators should not expect the results from these programs to be even decent if there are hardly any restrictions and there is a financial motive. Hopefully next year during National School Choice Week, North Carolina will have something positive to highlight.