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The hidden costs of vouchers

When they passed the ill-conceived program to hand taxpayers’ money to lower-income people to pay for private schools for their children, Republican lawmakers didn’t bother to point out the fine print – that the $4,200 maximum might not cover expenses such as food and transportation. And it also doesn’t cover the full tuition of private schools, many of which are church-affiliated.

While an N.C. State University study shows many families like getting that public money for private schools, some are struggling to cover the rest of the expenses. That struggle is going to be more common as the program expands, and in 10 years taxpayers will be transferring an astonishing $144.8 million a year of their money to the voucher program. That parents say they can’t cover all the additional costs without scrambling or getting scholarships from the private schools their kids attend isn’t good, because GOP legislators will doubtless simply add a little more money to the program to boost the “scholarship” amount.

There’s a cynical side to this entire program as well. Yes, the $4,200 can cover a lot of expense at small church schools, for example, but wealthy Republicans aren’t going to see any of the Opportunity Scholarship recipients in the state’s most exclusive private schools, the ones that cater to wealthy families. Tuition in those schools is often $20,000 and above.

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Parents with kids in public schools where arts and physical education programs are threatened, where the best teachers are leaving the profession to earn a better living, might point directly to Republicans in the General Assembly as the culprits. This voucher program was little more than a slap at public schools, which Republicans have targeted since taking control of the General Assembly in 2011. It is a bad idea that is getting worse, and getting more expensive, and the only positive in it is in the eye of the beholder – private school enrollment has gone up since the program started.

But taxpayers shouldn’t be funding private elementary and secondary schools just because Republican lawmakers think public education – which changed the face and fate of this state in the last 100 years – is an expensive pain, and some kind of liberal entitlement. And, some low-income parents are having to dig in their shallow pockets to cover extra expenses – expenses they wouldn’t have if their children were in public schools.

And is it really a good idea for the private schools themselves to get this money? Yes, courts have said it’s OK for public funds to go to religious-affiliated schools, but that still may be a point of contention in future legal action. And what about the fact that some private schools clearly believe the voucher money in effect helps students who already area enrolled in addition to those on vouchers.

Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, noted that the majority of schools who participate in the program said the voucher money helps with the overall operation expenses of their schools and can ease the burden on eligible families who have kids who already are enrolled in the school.

Said Nordstrom: “That’s a big sign that this isn’t as much motivated by giving new opportunities to students as it is subsidizing private school students that already exist.”

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