Fundamentalist Christian schools are receiving most of the money from North Carolina's 4-year-old school voucher program, but they're not providing anything close to the “sound basic education” the state Constitution promises to North Carolina’s children, according to a new report from the League of Women Voters.
The League said in announcing its findings that “77 percent of private schools receiving vouchers are using curricula that do not comply with state standards, leaving many students unprepared for college-level coursework or careers in certain fields.”
Bonnie Bechard, a retired UNC-CH administrator and a member of the League's Lower Cape Fear chapter, uncovered those lapses after reviewing the curricula being used at more than 100 schools that receive the most school vouchers. The vouchers, known as "opportunity scholarships," provide a maximum of $4,200 per student per school year.
Bechard's examination began in January 2017 as a simple assignment: look into the state's school voucher program so League members can be well-informed when they discuss education issues with legislators.
“I thought I would be just putting some facts together and we would recommend some best practices,” she said. “But every other school I looked at was using this A Beka curriculum, and I thought, 'What’s that about?' ”
What it’s about is inadequate and often inaccurate instruction being paid for by North Carolina taxpayers. The A Beka curriculum's name is drawn from the nickname of Rebekah Horton, who, with her husband, Arlin Horton, in 1974 founded Pensacola Christian College, a Baptist school in Pensacola, Fla. The couple also created A Beka Book, a publisher that produces a K-12 curriculum used by Christian fundamentalist schools and Christian home schools.
Bechard reviewed the schools receiving 75 percent of the vouchers, from 2014 through this school year, and the finding from that very large sample is that at least three out of four were using the A Beka curriculum or other “Christian biblical world view” instruction guides. For the 2017-18 school year, Bechard found that in the sample of schools she studied, 3,884 vouchers went to students attending biblical world view schools.
Students reading A Beka's textbooks learn that God created the world in six days 6,000 years ago, Noah’s Ark is a true story that happened during the Great Flood around 2500 B.C., and the flood’s runoff formed the Grand Canyon. The textbooks are also laced with critical comments from a deeply conservative perspective.
The University of California has rejected many high school courses using textbooks from A Beka and another Christian publisher, Bob Jones University. The university’s policy was upheld in federal court in 2008.
Bechard, a former director of student loans at UNC-Chapel Hill, now lives in Wilmington. During her research, she asked her husband, Lawrence Kessler, a professor emeritus at UNC-CH and former chair of UNC’s Department of Asian Studies, to evaluate an A Beka world history textbook’s section on Asia. “He said he found multiple errors on every page," she said. "He was very blunt. He said it was nonsense.”
William D. Snider, a professor at UNC-CH's Department of Neurology, panned the A Beka science textbook he read. He said “probably the biggest problem with the A Beka book is that religious teachings are interspersed in the text throughout. Virtually all scientists and professional educators would agree that religious teachings do not have a place in science textbooks.”
The legislature has provided an aggressive funding schedule to expand the voucher program. It started in 2014-15 with an allocation of $10.8 million and is scheduled to grow to $144 million annually by 2028-29. The total expenditure over that period would be $1.27 billion.
Notably, Bechard found that Catholic, Islamic and some other private schools that receive vouchers use a curriculum that meets the public school standard known as the NC Course of Study.
The lack of educational rigor at many of the schools teaching a biblical worldview curriculum hasn't come under state scrutiny because the law that created the voucher program provides very little of it.
The League has circulated its report among state legislators and is recommending that curriculum standards for voucher schools be set.
Rep. Graig R. Meyer, a Democratic member of the House K-12 Education Committee, said, "The legislature needs to take another look (at the voucher program). We need to have some accountability to know we are getting our money’s worth."