Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, believes that a publicly funded program of school vouchers to send low-income, underachieving students to private schools could break the cycle of poverty.
"Odds are if you're a minority—with 50 or 60 percent of minority homes being single parent—the idea of homeschooling or receiving a big check to send your child to private school is a wish, a dream," he said.
Allison was a mentee of the late civil rights leader Julius Chambers and has been the key lobbyist in the passage of North Carolina's "opportunity scholarship" amendment last year.
But Chambers' daughter, Judy, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to have this legislation declared unconstitutional. "Julius Chambers himself might have been on the other end of this," Allison said. "There will be those from the Civil Rights era that are still with us today that will find this hard because they struggled so hard to be able to break through that barrier of public school."
Allison started PEFNC in 2005. "When I say we were grassroots, I mean grassroots. We didn't have an office, a staff. Our board was a board of the willing." However grassroots their beginnings, in the last two years PEFNC and its political action committee, Partners for Educational Freedom in NC, have become one of the central conduits for big "school choice" money in North Carolina politics.
Allison's group and similar ones nationwide are funded by libertarian and right-wing billionaires, who, using philanthropic foundations, nonprofits, PACS, and hefty individual donations, have poured money into state pushes for controversial voucher programs in Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Wisconsin—and now North Carolina.
Though the talking points of the "school choice movement" are populist and no-nonsense—that parents have the right to choose the kind of education their child receives—a limited-government, limited-regulation agenda stands behind it.
Last year, heavily lobbied by PEFNC and other big, out-of-state foundations, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sponsored House Bill 944, an "Opportunity Scholarship" act that would have sent $90 million in public funds for vouchers to families making up to 300 percent above the poverty line (around $71,500 for a family of four).
HB944 never got a full vote in the General Assembly, and was whittled down into a $10 million voucher program in the state's 2013–2015 budget. The second year of the program would allot $40 million dollars. Legislative notes indicate that the General Assembly hopes to expand the program to $50 million annually in subsequent years, and further relax the poverty restrictions. This would make private school vouchers essentially available to middle-class North Carolinians, then perhaps eventually, all North Carolinians.
The current program, which offers $4,200 vouchers to low-income public school students, began accepting applications Feb. 1. As of last week more than 4,200 families had applied, according to the state Education Assistance Authority. The legislation requires applicants to be enrolled in public school and to qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program. However, Lindsay Wagner at NC Policy Watch reported that a nonprofit Schools Choice NC, operated by Parents for Educational Freedom in NC, has been calling residents and offering vouchers to families that don't meet these eligibility criteria.
This past December, a coalition of concerned taxpayers, educators, and faith leaders represented by the NC Justice Center, the NC Association of Educators and the NC School Board Association sued the state seeking to have the voucher program declared unconstitutional. By January, 40 individual county school boards had voted to sign onto the School Board Association suit.
They argue that public schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and providing vouchers to finance private education is stealing money from the already-stagnant public education budget.
Among the plaintiffs is 94-year-old Durham civil rights educator John Lucas, Sr. and former state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mike Ward. "This winds up being a sleight of hand," Ward said. "It's a method for slipping vouchers in with the patina of a righteous cause. But the fact is poor kids are going to fare least well under this system. The intent is ultimately in middle and upper-class kids."
At a Wake County Superior Court hearing last week, lawyers from the state and the libertarian Institute for Justice, which represents Parents for Educational Freedom, sought to dismiss the citizen suits.
Institute for Justice has been the go-to firm for state battles over vouchers around the country. Its website even offers a readymade "guide to designing school choice programs" to help groups learn how to circumvent individual state constitutions.
At a hearing Friday, Superior Court judge Robert H. Hobgood issued a preliminary injunction, halting the $10 million voucher program until it could make its way through the courts.
"It ain't over til the fat lady sings," said Institute for Justice lawyer Dick Komer, who said his group would appeal, even if it goes to the Supreme Court.
The modern notion of privatizing education with school vouchers originated with a 1955 essay by archconservative economist Milton Friedman titled "The Role of Government in Education." He wrote, "Governments could require a minimum level of education, which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on 'approved' educational services."
Less than a year after Friedman published his essay, the North Carolina General Assembly held a special session and adopted a voucher program that allowed white kids to receive vouchers for private schools in order to circumvent de-segregation. The Pearsall Plan, as it was called, required a constitutional amendment. North Carolina's Constitution specifically guarantees that tax funds levied for education go to a free and uniform system of public schools.
The segregationist Pearsall Plan was arguably more accountable than the current voucher program. Private schools were held to the same standards as public schools and were expected to provide a non-sectarian education. Never successfully implemented, the Pearsall Plan was finally struck down by a federal panel in 1966.
But the segregation-era characterization of vouchers as a vehicle for well-off white kids to escape racially diverse schools is no longer applicable. African-Americans like Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford), Rep. Ed Hanes, Jr. (D-Forsyth) have been some of the primary legislative sponsors of the voucher legislation. Brandon and Hanes joined longtime voucher proponents, including Reps. Thom Tillis and Paul Stam (Stam declined to be interviewed for this article) to get vouchers passed.
Allison believes that his work is part of the next phase of the civil rights struggle. "I'm asking all of us to elevate our minds. I'm asking for people to think as strategically as they did in the '50s and '60s ...We should be as radical and revolutionary as they were in the '50s and '60s."
Brandon, who once worked for progressive House member Dennis Kucinich, sees vouchers as an option for poor students in Guilford County who are already in a dire situation. "Never in a million years would the thought that I would support vouchers cross my mind," Brandon said. "[But] the system we operate in right now creates segregation between classes. This is the reason why I stopped listening to the fear-based rhetoric on the left," he said, "Everything they kept telling me they feared already exists ... when you have white flight, it takes money from my school."
In 2002, the far-right Michigan billionaire Dick DeVos stood in front of a crowd at the conservative Heritage Foundation's annual meeting and proposed a strategy for pushing school vouchers around the country. "We need to target our ability at state level to deliver rewards and consequences to legislators on school choice issues," he said, noting that vouchers should "not be viewed as only a conservative idea." DeVos provided further talking points. "Public school is such a misnomer today that I hate to use it. I've begun using the word 'government school' or 'government-run school.'" He concluded saying "This has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible."
Dick's wife, Betsy, chairs the powerful "school choice" foundation American Federation for Children as well as the Alliance for School Choice. Both organizations dole out millions in campaign contributions and to push the voucher agenda through PACs and nonprofits. DeVos' money, alongside that of other major proponents like the Walton Family Foundation, propel the national "school choice movement" forward, state by state.
According to tax documents provided by PEFNC, Allison's organization has a nearly million dollar operating budget financed exclusively by this small cabal of national foundations who fuel "school choice": the Walton Family Foundation, the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice, the [Milton] Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and the Challenge Foundation.
Allison is listed as the only paid, full-time employee of PEFNC, though the organization recently hired Karen Duquette, an anti-Obamacare crusader from the CIVITAS Institute, which is funded by the Pope Foundation.
The American Federation for Children funneled $90,000 into lobbying for "school choice" in North Carolina—a fraction of the $2,392,000 they spent in Wisconsin, half of it put toward defending Scott Walker in his recall election.
As originally reported by NC Policy Watch, PEFNC's PAC Partners for Educational Freedom contributed $36,200 to the 2012 campaigns of state lawmakers from both parties. Republicans like Gov. Pat McCrory, Reps. Thom Tillis and Paul Stam—as well as black Democrats, Reps. Marcus Brandon and Ed Hanes and Sens. Parmon, and Malcolm Graham.
In March 2012, Parents for Educational Freedom in NC flew 10 bipartisan lawmakers and House Speaker Tillis to Florida to examine the voucher program. There, they also met with Gov. Jeb Bush, a major proponent and financial backer of the national school voucher movement.
Another PAC, NC Citizens for Freedom in Education, made large contributions to the state lawmakers, and all of this was topped off by individual contributions from billionaires like DeVos and William Oberndorf from California. One-quarter of Rep. Brandon's total 2012 contributions came from pro-school choice donors (Brandon says he supported school choice before he received these campaign contributions.)
Matt Ellinwood, an education policy analyst at the NC Justice Center said, "This voucher program is being portrayed as a radical new idea. But it's been around for 20 years. If you look at the data from places like Milwaukee, the public school students are outperforming the private school students. But people from the Walton Family Foundation have decided that there's bad public schools out there so let's jettison the entire system."
Rep. Brandon, an openly gay, black progressive candidate running for the U.S. House this fall, was the force behind eliminating a potential accountability clause from North Carolina's voucher legislation—some oversight over the schools that will be directly receiving taxpayer money.
"I did not want it in there," Brandon told INDY. "Those lofty private schools would have been able to meet the standards first and it would have taken away from the ability of the schools I really wanted to get started—the neighborhood schools. They would have never had a chance. This is an opportunity for poor communities to have a space inside the community to start schools. You can take 50 kids who are about to drop out of school and bring them over to the church across the street."
Ellinwood is concerned that without regulation or some data aggregation, it will be hard to measure how voucher students are actually doing in private schools. "I think we'll see more fly by night schools cropping up. The voucher is for $4,200. The high quality private schools are more than that. The fly-by-night schools will be predominantly religious schools that charge a lot less, that tend to be overwhelmingly one race or another."
According to the Division of Non-Public Education's records, 70 percent of North Carolina's 700 private schools are religious or sectarian. The Division of Non-Public Education requires only the most minimal oversight of private and homeschools. This is a direct result of heavy lobbying and pressure from Christian fundamentalists in the 1970s. As a DNPE website describes it, "As their numbers increased, Christian school leaders soon realized that the non-public school regulatory system (established as part of the 1955-1956 era Pearsall Plan) was going to be a major obstacle to the operation of their schools." Lobbying and protests at the state capital led to the passage of the so-called Christian School Bill in 1979.
Proponents of school vouchers argue that since scholarships like Pell Grants can be used to attend private religious schools such as Duke and Wake Forest, public funds should also be permitted to go to private religious secondary schools.
"Half of our shit is religious," Brandon said. "Everything is religious-based or has some type of religious tone to it or background with it."
But North Carolina's religious K–12 private schools are not Notre Dame. Jessica Holmes, a litigator for the North Carolina Association of Educators, said, "These [private] schools can decide that they won't accept any student on basis of disability, of the color of their skin, they can get rid of any student who is gay. They have the right to do those things because they are not held to any sort of standard. Rather than giving them free access to this money, you think they would have tied in some sort of accountability."
All North Carolina's private schools are required to do is keep health inspections, fire inspections, immunization records, and attendance records, according to Chris Mears of the DNPE. There is no standard curriculum and teachers are not required to have certifications. Only the head administrator is required to pass a criminal background check. A nationally standardized test has to be administered but schools don't have to report the results. According to DNPE's database, many of these schools only have one teacher and a handful of students. Affidavits in the court proceedings on vouchers said that some private schools specifically require parents to have a "Christian background" to "have received Jesus Christ as their personal savior" before being admitted.
Looming behind the legal fight over North Carolina's voucher program is an ideological battle between those who believe the state should fund a strong, well-regulated public education system and those who would prefer to see a more localized, lightly regulated education marketplace.
Opponents of vouchers say that the opportunity scholarship program is the gateway drug to an increasingly privatized educational system. "I lament all the effort spent and the money spent on trying to privatize and break up our school system and solve achievement problems of poor children by trying to create a dual school system," Yvonne Brannan of Public Schools First NC said. "What would have happened if they spent all this money and effort on improving our public schools?"
Darrell Allison disagrees. "To dismiss the Opportunity Scholarship program, I'll go with that to an extent. But to the extent of the alternative. I haven't been hearing real true alternatives ... something tangible, real, and substantive that can turn a situation around here."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Billion dollar babies."