The citizens’ group “Public Schools First NC” has published a scathing critique of the double standards that the General Assembly has inserted into the laws that govern education.

Double Standard!

Proponents of school choice, especially voucher program supporters, are often the most committed to holding public schools accountable for how public funds are spent. They point to the need to monitor the value provided by our tax dollars. Yet these same choice proponents are remarkably silent when asked to apply similar standards to the private schools receiving public tax dollars.

There are many notable contrasts (or rather, contradictions) evident in the 2021-23 budget when it comes to spending on education. The accountability double standard for public dollars spent on public schools versus private schools is especially glaring. For public schools, NC has a well-established NC Report Card that provides a range of information about academic performance and school statistics such as class size and teacher qualifications. In addition, the NC School Finance Dashboard, launched in 2019, provides basic financial information about public schools such as the source of funding and how the funding is spent. For private schools receiving public funds through the school voucher programs (e.g. Opportunity Scholarships), there is no school report card or other public-facing accountability mechanisms. Nothing.

The NC, A-F grading program, one component of the NC Report Card, assigns every NC public school a letter grade. Widely disparaged for their outsized reliance on student achievement test scores, the A-F grades were first assigned to NC public schools in the 2013-14 school year. Each school’s grade is based on a formula where 80% of the grade is based on achievement and 20% on growth. The data used to calculate the achievement scores vary by grade and include end-of-grade and end-of-course test scores, passing rates for Algebra II or Integrated Math III, ACT scores, and graduation rates, There have been a number of bipartisan proposals to change the formula to 50% achievement and 50% growth, but no change has yet been made. NC is an outlier among states with letter grading systems in the resistance to developing a more balanced approach. Kris Nordstrom’s report School Performance Grades: A Legislative Tool for Stigmatizing Non-White Schools describes the grading system and some of its problems in detail.

As NC legislators funnel more money to private schools through voucher programs they are failing to require of private schools similar levels of transparency about student achievement and school finances as contained in the NC School Report Card and School Finance Dashboard. For example, although private schools are required to test students in grades 3, 6, 9, and 11, there is no mandatory public reporting requirement. In addition, individual schools select which test to administer, which creates a system where there is no standardized way to compare student achievement across schools or to public school student achievement. Interestingly, for 11th grade, the guidelines state that “Each private school should establish a minimum score on an achievement test to be administered on or before 11th grade which ensures students possess a minimum of skills for high school graduation.” In other words, each school sets its own passing standard. In the public school setting, this is equivalent to allowing each school to determine its own passing (Level 3) score on an EOG or EOC test.

In addition, private schools are not required to share information about their curriculum, qualifications of instructional staff (teachers are not required to hold a college degree or be certified) , or even basic information such as class size and technology resources. This chart showing the essential differences further illustrates the striking contrast.

Yet with the 2021-23 budget, even though in previous years, demand for Opportunity Scholarships has lagged behind the funds allocated to them, with millions left unspent, the legislature allocated even more money to this unaccountable voucher program. By law, funding for Opportunity Scholarships was set to grow by $10 million each year (on top of base funding) regardless of whether the money was spent. With the 2021-23 budget, the increase was bumped to $15 million each year. More than 3.1 billion will be spent on the program over the next 15 years. To drum up demand, they earmarked $500,000 to market the Opportunity Scholarships. At the same time, the legislature failed in its constitutional obligations to fully fund public schools. Members of legislative leadership have even taken the extreme measure of filing an appeal to stop the courts from requiring that dollars are allocated to fund education at the minimum required by the NC constitution.

So why is there such a double standard?Why are our legislators so resistant to an equal evaluation of public and private schools when private schools are spending public tax dollars? Are they concerned that the private school sector won’t hold up to a fair comparison? Ask your legislator! With the abundant unspent voucher school funds, they could build a private school online dashboard just like the public school dashboards so taxpayers can see all aspects of how tax dollars are being used for education. Better yet, let’s put the public taxpayer funds back into our public schools where it belongs.