School choice opponents revert to their favorite weapons: twisting the facts and nonsense

Politicians opposed to the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) have been fighting recent efforts to expand the program. The latest example is SB 609. Some of these arguments surfaced in the debate over SB 609 on the floor of the NC Senate on May 8.

Opponents say the program is underutilized due to lack of demand, and the money would be better used by redirecting the funds back to the public schools. Furthermore, expanding eligibility requirements would make the program – according to one senator – “one for relatively high-income families to send their kids to private schools.” Therefore all efforts to expand the program should be opposed.

It’s difficult to call these statements anything other than pure nonsense. Let’s analyze the claims.

Many trace the assertion about underutilized funds back to former representative Charlie Jeter, now a lobbyist for Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Schools, who claimed only $28 million of the $45 million allotted for OSP was utilized.

Those numbers are simply incorrect. If you do additional research, you’ll find that in 2017-18 about $34.8 million was allotted for the OSP, with about $27.5 million of that spent on scholarships. Another $3 million was spent on program administration costs such as technology and administrative improvements by the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA), the state agency that administers the Opportunity Scholarship Program. That leaves $4.3 million in unspent funds.

Is the program underutilized? In 2018-19, over 500 kindergartners and first grade students applied and were declared eligible but were unable to receive the scholarship because OSP caps K-1 students at 40 percent of program enrollment. Five hundred scholarships would have reduced the unspent amount around another $2 million. According to NCSEAA, as of May 1, 2019, almost 10,000 families have applied for OSP, a significant increase over last year.

Lawmakers look at unspent funds and say demand for the program must be lacking. Waitlists are requested to indicate demand for a program. However, NCSEAA officials say that a waitlist is not an accurate measure of demand for OSP, since families are often unable or unwilling to separate siblings. If there is a possibility that siblings would be divided, parents will think twice about applying to the program. Removing this arbitrary cap would do much to increase demand and reflect the real demand for the OSP.

Gov. Roy Cooper has challenged in the courts the provisions to forward fund OSP appropriations—and lost. Forward funding allows NCSEAA to award scholarships in spring for the fall, because the money is available and in hand, and administrators don’t have to await annual budget actions by the legislature.  Forward funding is a process that is not only used by OSP but by other large state agencies such as the UNC System, agencies that must administer programs involving thousands of applications and millions of dollars.

In his 2019-20 budget proposal, Gov. Cooper recommended freezing OSP enrollment and zeroing out forward funding for the program which is another way to essentially kill it. Cooper recommended the same in his first budget proposal.

Cooper defends his action by saying OSP lacks accountability and would be better spent by the public schools. Several bills have suggested redirecting this money back to the public schools where opponents of OSP say it is most needed.

Contrary to the assertions of many, ending forward funding would not aid the public schools. Students from the OSP program would show up in the public schools and schools would have to find space and resources to educate them. To date, Gov. Cooper has suggested he would not provide any additional funding for the public schools to handle the influx of students.

Currently it costs the state about $6,154 to educate a public-school student. The cost of an average OSP scholarship for one year is about $3,911. So, the state is saving over $2,243 per student.

The fact is, if more students are enrolled in the public schools, taxpayers will pay more, but because there wil be more students, less money will be available on a per student basis.

Lastly, during the debate on the Senate floor to expand OSP eligibility to a family of four earning about $71,000. Sen Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) said:

“This is no longer going to be a program that was as originally designed. Instead it’s going to be one for relatively high-income families to send their kids to private schools even if they can and probably are now affording private school from their own funds.”

A family of four with an income of $71,000 is “high income”? I think you’d find a lot of families who would disagree with that designation. I would like to remind Sen. Marcus of NaShonda Cooke. Last year she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in an article on struggling teachers. Cooke, a teacher in Durham is quoted in the story:

I have 20 years of experience, but I can’t afford to fix my car, see a doctor for headaches or save for my child’s future. I’m a teacher in America.

Cooke worked two teaching jobs for 10.5 months for a combined salary of $69,165. Is Sen. Marcus saying Cooke – and all other educators who earn the same – are “high income”?

Marcus implies that $71,000 somehow fails the acceptable threshold test for OSP recipients, but it’s not a living wage for teachers. The distinction lacks justification.

Opportunity Scholarships offer 9,600 students throughout North Carolina the chance to access educational opportunities that best fit their needs. A recent survey of parents with children in the OSP program found 97 percent of parents were satisfied or very satisfied with the program and 97 percent of parents said they were happy with their child’s academic progress.

Does OSP take money from the public schools? No. OSP is funded separately and administered through UNC — not the Department of Public Instruction. OSP funds have no connection to the public schools.

As OSP grows, it provides more children the opportunity to receive a quality education. A recent poll showed the popularity of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. It’s clear the public supports these opportunities. And children and parents want  these opportunities.

It should anger us no end that some lawmakers are working to limit and take away these options.

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Author: Bob Luebke

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