Opportunity Grants and Missed Opportunity Refunds

Irony makes this world go ‘round and North Carolina is providing plenty of it in the form of vouchers, or as proponents call them in North Carolina, Opportunity Grants.

In truth, they should be called Missed Opportunity Grants, because the money that the North Carolina General Assembly has spent and wants to spend on vouchers is literally being taken away from the traditional pubic schools who need them the most.

The following definitions for the word “voucher” come from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/voucher):

1:  an act of vouching
2a :  a piece of supporting evidence :  
proof
b :  a documentary record of a business transaction
c :  a written affidavit or authorization :  
certificate
d :  a form or check indicating a credit against future purchases or expenditures
3:  a coupon issued by government to a parent or guardian to be used to fund a child’s education in either a public or private school

How ironic is it that the first definition of the word “voucher” uses the word “proof” in it and there is no substantial evidence that the use of “vouchers” (refer to third definition above) actually even work well? Even without any “voucher” to “vouch” for the use of educational “vouchers”, the General Assembly seems hell-bent on expanding the Opportunity Grants program.

On May 31st, Sen. Phil Berger officially rolled out the senate’s budget proposal and in it set appropriations for further funding of the Opportunity Grants, NC’s version of vouchers. The table below is from page 64 of that actual budget proposal. It asks for a %300 increase in funds by the year 2027.

opportunity-1

Add up all of the money for each pf the years and you will get a sum of nearly just under a billion dollars. A BILLION DOLLARS!

Now, look at the list of eligible schools that can receive Opportunity Grants – https://www3.ncseaa.edu/cgi-bin/SCHOOLROSTER/NPS500.pgm. It ‘s a long list.  But here it the first part of it.

opportunity-2

Yep, they are mostly religiously affiliated. If you look at the entire list, you will see that trend stands true throughout. Religious schools do not have to use the same curriculum. They can and have altered admission requirements (LGBT students for instance). They can teach creationism and eschew evolution. They can use their own “tests” to measure students. They can indoctrinate students based on the belief system of the school’s religious affiliation. Also, these religious schools are associated many times with non-taxed entities.

And public tax money is being used to finance it.

Even more ironic is that literally days before this budget was presented a study by Mark Dynarski at the Brookings Institute spoke directly to the negative effects of vouchers. A link to the study was provided by Rob Schofield of NC Policy Watch (http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2016/05/31/new-study-voucher-students-doing-significantly-worse-than-public-school-counterparts/). He also highlighted the Executive Summary of Dynarski’s report and it is stirring.

“Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.

Another explanation is that our historical understanding of the superior performance of private schools is no longer accurate. Since the nineties, public schools have been under heavy pressure to improve test scores. Private schools were exempt from these accountability requirements. A recent study showed that public schools closed the score gap with private schools. That study did not look specifically at Louisiana and Indiana, but trends in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for public school students in those states are similar to national trends.

That does not vouch well for vouchers, especially since North Carolina’s program has hardly had enough time to even show results that would validate such an increase in funds in the budget proposal.

It has been shown that much of the money from Opportunity Grants has been used in tuition costs for small (oftentimes religious) schools who do not have to show test results unless they garner an extremely high amount of money from the voucher system. It’s like they do not even have to show growth, the very variable that lawmakers continue to hark on for public schools.

Put simply, the NCGA has created a moving and insanely difficult target for public schools to show proficiency that then creates a false need for vouchers to schools that do not even have to show any growth, a need so great that it will cost almost $900 million dollars in the next ten years to “fix”.

Until vouchers can be shown to improve academic outcomes and the recipient schools show the same transparency with tax money as public schools school must, then these are not Opportunity Grants. They are missed opportunities.

So what is to be done? Well, I propose the “Missed Opportunity Refunds”. It revolves around five basic principles.

  1. All schools who are willing to accept Opportunity Grants should be willing to submit an application to the state stating why an Opportunity Grant would be a good investment on the part of the state. Those schools should also disclose the tuition costs and the amount of scholarships available and it should be public. This would make them eligible to receive an Opportunity Grant. However, by the same token, they would now be responsible for a Missed Opportunity Refund.
  2. Missed Opportunity Refunds would be financed by the very private schools that receive Opportunity Grant money that fail to show gains in reading and math standardized tests that public schools are forced to measure students with. The Missed Opportunity Refund would go to the public school that the student would have naturally attended.
  3. When a Missed Opportunity Refund is given back to a public school, the state will have to also pay another $4,200 to the school to help make sure that the student make up for the digression in academic achievement. That money would come out of the budget for Opportunity Grants established by the NCGA.
  4. All schools that receive Opportunity Grants have to be on a registry, like the one alluded to earlier – https://www3.ncseaa.edu/cgi-bin/SCHOOLROSTER/NPS500.pgm. But now there would be a new registry kept by the state that would show how many “refunds” had to be given back to public schools and it would be accessible to the public.
  5. If a school has to give back a certain number of Missed Opportunity Refunds, then that school no longer is eligible to receive Opportunity Grants at all.

Seems fair to me.

When the chance or occasion or prospect arises to spend money on a student to be more successful in a school, then does it not make sense to spend money helping ensure that all students become more successful in school?

And we already have that opportunity  – by fully funding our public schools.

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