Will Lawmakers Bolster a Program That Sends Tax Dollars to Religious Schools? | North Carolina | Indy Week
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Will Lawmakers Bolster a Program That Sends Tax Dollars to Religious Schools? 

The Upper Room Christian School in Raleigh, NC.

Photo by Alex Boerner

The Upper Room Christian School in Raleigh, NC.

In 2012, the NCAA discovered that then-N.C. State basketball player Rodney Purvis had completed only eight core classes as a high school student at Raleigh's Upper Room Christian Academy, half the required total for incoming student-athletes. Purvis, who graduated in a class of just four, was eventually cleared to play due to "unique circumstances" and later transferred to the University of Connecticut. Shortly after the NCAA investigation, Upper Room announced that it was downsizing to a K–5 school due to a "lack of funding."

In recent years, however, Upper Room has been buoyed by a state "opportunity scholarship" program that routes tax dollars to private, often religious schools. This year, it received $191,100 to fund forty-seven students' tuition, accounting for nearly half of the school's student body and making the school the program's twelfth-largest beneficiary. But even that proved insufficient: in April, the school announced that it would close after this year.

"It's impossible to compete with a free education," Bishop Patrick L. Wooden, an avowed anti-LGBTQ activist who has featured prominently at pro-HB 2 rallies, said in a statement at the time.

It may be too late for Upper Room, but the General Assembly is now working diligently to make it easier for other private and religious schools to compete. And you'll get to pay for it.

In 2014, the state introduced opportunity scholarships, pitched as a means of letting low-income children in poor-performing schools escape to something better. One of twenty-one such programs across the country, North Carolina's voucher program provides up to $4,200 a year to students in households below the federal poverty line and pays 90 percent of tuition for students living at or barely above the poverty line.

The program has come under fire since its inception. Under state law, voucher-funded schools don't need to be accredited, and their teachers don't need to be certified by the N.C. Board of Education. The schools can also create their own curriculum. While they have to provide some sort of standardized test, that test "could be the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills [or] it could be a test from 1950," says N.C. Justice Center Education and Law Project director Matt Ellinwood.

click to enlarge Matthew Ellinwood is the Director of the Education & Law Project with the NC Justice Center. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Matthew Ellinwood is the Director of the Education & Law Project with the NC Justice Center.

Or, as state Representative Graig Meyer, D-Orange, puts it: "We don't have any way of knowing if the money is being used in schools that are even meeting the lowest possible standards for an acceptable education."

Critics like Meyer saw these vouchers as a way to undermine public schools and further privatize education. Some sued to overturn the law, but the N.C. Supreme Court's Republican majority sided with the legislature. So this year, the voucher program paid nearly $13 million for more than three thousand students to attend 324 private schools—many of which, like Upper Room, are open about their discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ students, and all of which are largely unaccountable to taxpayers.

Now lawmakers are going all-in. A bill moving through the Senate would add $10 million to the program every year, until the voucher fund reaches almost $135 million. Another bill, meanwhile, would modify a cap on the number of vouchers that can be awarded to students in kindergarten and first grade to just apply to kindergartners, which means more money will be spent on students who use the program for all twelve years.

According to estimates from the N.C. Justice Center, these two bills will cost the state more than $128 million in the next five years.

The bills, of course, are part of a larger effort to remake the state's educational system. Other bills moving through the legislature right now include: a proposal to create an Achievement School District, which would allow charter school operators to take over troubled districts (an idea that has produced disastrous results in Tennessee); another to force public schools to share money from grants and private gifts with charter schools, but not the other way around; and a provision in the House budget to relax regulations on virtual charter schools, even after the state's two pilot virtual charters both reported dropout rates of around 30 percent.

"This is all part of a long-term effort to dismantle the public school system by diverting funding to unaccountable private schools that don't have to provide the same services as public schools," says Logan Smith, communications director for Progress NC. "Government shouldn't be using taxpayer money to subsidize religion in the first place, but doing so at the expense of our public schools is especially problematic."

It's even more problematic when that state-subsidized religion preaches discrimination against gay and trans students.

Several Raleigh schools that receive voucher funds have their school's philosophy and/or handbook posted on their websites. At least four that serve high school students—Raleigh Christian Academy ($224,751 received in 2015–2016); North Raleigh Christian Academy ($83,742); Iron Academy ($16,660); and GRACE Christian School ($12,600)—explicitly say that students, or even their parents, being LGBTQ runs afoul of the code of conduct and is grounds for refusal of admission or expulsion.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY SKILLET GILMORE
  • Illustration by Skillet Gilmore

For example, the website of Iron Academy, an all-boys middle and high school, says that if "the atmosphere or conduct within a particular home is counter to or in opposition to the biblical lifestyle that the school teaches, the school reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student." The list of transgressions includes "practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity."

Another two Raleigh high schools receiving voucher funds—Cardinal Gibbons ($11,490) and St. Thomas More Academy ($8,400)—are part of the Diocese of Raleigh, whose bishop, Michael F. Burbidge, supported Amendment 1 and vocally opposes the White House's recent directive ordering publicly funded schools to provide transgender students access to bathrooms that conform to their gender identity. In a statement, Burbidge called that mandate "an attempt to coerce the public into embracing the federal government's position regarding sexual identity."

According to Ellinwood, 70 percent of the schools participating in the voucher program are religious, and 90 percent of the state's 3,595 vouchers went to religious schools this year.

Since the participating public schools don't receive federal funding, they aren't prohibited from discriminating on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, religion, wealth, disability, and gender identity.

Nor do they have to abide by the Obama administration's bathroom directive. (Last week, eleven states sued to challenge this mandate in federal court.)

"This gets down to the lack of accountability in the program," Ellinwood says, "where you really have no clue how many of these schools discriminate."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Hate in Your Name"

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