Where is NC school voucher money going?

ASHEVILLE – While North Carolina private schools wait for the courts to sort out the future of a program providing taxpayer-funded student scholarships, or vouchers, some schools have begun receiving funding through the program.

But so far very little of the original $10 million allotted by state lawmakers has gone to schools in Western North Carolina.

Statewide, about $1.8 million has been paid or was slated to be paid on behalf of 901 students for the fall semester. Payments for additional students are expected soon. Schools are supposed to receive payment in the fall and in the spring.

Many schools receiving the tax dollars through the vouchers are religious schools.

Greensboro Islamic Academy has received more money than any other private school, according to information provided by the State Education Assistance Authority. So far, the school has received or will receive nearly $120,000 for tuition for 57 students.

According to its website, the school offers classes for pre-K through seventh grade. The site describes it as the only Islamic school in the Triad area.

By county, Wake County has the most students receiving vouchers with 141. Schools in that county have received nearly $300,000 so far.

Buncombe County, by comparison, has just nine students receiving assistance through the program. Less than $20,000 is going to three schools for the fall semester — Avonlea Learning Community, New City Christian School and New Classical Academy in Asheville.

WNC schools

New Classical Academy is not a religious school. The school, which has 56 students, operated in Weaverville for seven years before moving to West Asheville. This is the second year in West Asheville, said Andrew Cross, school director.

Three students are receiving opportunity scholarships.

"We've had a number of full scholarship students in the past, and when the program opened up, we figured, 'Let's take a shot and see how it works,'" Cross said.

The school has students in kindergarten through eighth grade and focuses on individualized education.

Cross said parents opted for the school because "they felt their children's needs weren't being served and the fact that what we try to do is individualized education and work on improvement rather than just pushing kids through the system."

Tuition is $6,000 for the kindergarten program and $8,000 for first through eighth grade.

New City is a religious school, but Executive Director Coral Jeffries said the school doesn't require parents "to be a Christian or say they are a Christian to bring their child here."

"But we're really up front; we're not trying to hide anything," she said. "We want them to know what their kids will be exposed to.

"It does mean things like taking some time and reading a Bible story or working on memorizing a Bible verse," she said.

New City has 76 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Jeffries said parents had to apply for the scholarships in February, and that early deadline could be why more WNC parents didn't sign up.

"If your child is in public school, they do the end-of-grade testing in early May. You won't get the results of that until probably pretty soon before school ends. As a parent, you don't have the information until pretty late," she said.

Some families are also still not aware of the program, which has started and stopped this year amid legal challenges.

Bethel Christian Academy in Spruce Pine has 11 students receiving the scholarships — the most of any WNC school.

Like New City, Bethel is a Christian school. The school is affiliated with Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. It has 60 students and covers grades K-12. The school will receive $16,250 for the fall semester.

"Basically what we do as a Christian school, we can have chapel with them once a week. Obviously, we get to have prayer with them during the day and Bible lessons. But as far as everything else, we're common core. All of our teachers are degree teachers that are licensed by the state," said Darrin Waldroup, pastor at Bethel Missionary Baptist and principal at the school.

Tuition is $2,250 per year for students in grades K-5 and $2,500 for students in upper grades.

Once the school had committed to take the 11 students, "we didn't send them back" when the ruling temporarily halted funding, Waldroup said.

"We're way in the red, but somehow the Lord provides," he said.

Legal challenges

Officials expect the number of scholarships to grow, but it's not clear yet what the final number will be.

Payments on behalf of additional students in North Carolina are expected soon, according to Elizabeth McDuffie, director of grants, training and outreach for the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which is administering the program.

The transition to a new software program had delayed payment to some schools, but more checks went out last week, and more are expected next week. The checks go directly to the schools.

"We are at 1,000," McDuffie said of the number of students getting private-school tuition paid through the state program.

The 1,000 are among 1,878 who were eligible and had accepted the scholarship at the time a lower court ruled the program unconstitutional.

McDuffie said some families have opted out of the program or, in some cases, accepted scholarships but never identified a school the student planned to attend. In some cases, schools opted not to participate.

"What we have now is that 1,400 (students) who include some who are enrolled, some who we don't know what the status is. They could be enrolled and the school has just failed to tell us that yet. We will be following up and continue to follow up and try to get answers for everybody," she said.

Legal wrangling over the program has prompted some families to put off enrolling their child in a private school, according to Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which supports the program.

The opportunity scholarships or vouchers were approved by state lawmakers in 2013. The program provides tuition of up to $4,200 per year for low-income students. In the first year, a family of four with household income of about $44,500 would qualify.

But a couple of lawsuits challenged the program, alleging it violates the North Carolina constitution. In August, a Superior Court judge agreed and ruled the program was unconstitutional, putting the program on hold.

"Some families, and understandably so, said, 'Look, we're on, we're off, we're on, we're off,'" Allison said.

That lower court decision is under appeal, and the North Carolina Supreme Court, bypassing the state Court of Appeals, will review the issue. In the meantime, the state appeals court allowed the distribution of tuition funds for those 1,878 students who had accepted a scholarship for the upcoming school year.

Allison believes there is plenty of demand for the program based on the more than 5,500 applications from parents statewide. He said the state received applications from 97 of 100 counties.

The initial batch of applications was narrowed to about 4,500 families, and then the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority did a lottery.

"We notified 2,300 that they were selected. When not all of the scholarship offers were accepted, we offered scholarships to the remaining eligible students," McDuffie said.

Allison said the court ruling, which came just as students were starting school, might have prompted some families to delay taking part in the program until the spring semester or until next year.

"We're still hearing from families, hundreds of them in the course of a month, who are ready when the program is up again," he said.

If and when the program resumes will depend on the state Supreme Court. Both sides could submit briefs to the court in the next couple of months, and oral arguments could take place in early spring, according to Christine Bischoff, attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, which has challenged the program.

"Once it's argued, the court can take as long as they want to issue a decision. Our goal would be to have a quick decision so that the status of the program would be known," she said.

Bischoff said if the state Supreme Court rules the program unconstitutional, her group will push for the state to recoup the money that has been distributed to schools.


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