By Ben Rappaport
This story was updated Aug. 21 with a response from Highlander Academy. It was updated July 13 with quotes from the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.
Three private schools in Robeson County received more taxpayer-funded scholarships than they had students, according to a new report.
One of the schools – Riverside Christian Academy in Lumberton – had 16 students but got 55 Opportunity Scholarships in 2021, according to the report by the N.C. Justice Center.
The report lists 62 private schools across North Carolina where the number of Opportunity Scholarships outnumbered students at some point between 2016 and 2022. It comes as Republican leaders in the state legislature push for a major expansion of the voucher program, which pays private school tuition for eligible families.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency last month for public education in the state, saying the GOP’s push was an attack on public schools.
The other Robeson County schools listed in the report are Highlander Academy in Red Springs and Created for You Learning Academy, which is no longer operational. Riverside Christian Academy had the biggest discrepancy among the three schools.
The Rev. Jerry McNeil, the principal at Riverside Christian Academy, told the Border Belt Independent the school’s 2020-2021 enrollment figure – 16 students – from the N.C. Department of Non-Public Education, which was used in the Justice Center report, was incorrect.
The following year, in 2021-2022, the school had 75 students and 68 Opportunity Scholarships, according to the department.
McNeil said he was not aware of the 2020-2021 enrollment figure in the database until the BBI brought it to his attention. He said he is currently working with DNPE to correct the enrollment data.
While McNeil said the enrollment data listed was incorrect, he said the school added 45 students during the 2021 school year. He attributed the rapid growth to security in funding and word of mouth.
“I feel that many families wanted to make sure that the program wasn’t going to lose its funding and the news about the program began to get out more and more people are hearing about it,” McNeil said in an email on Wednesday.
The school was first founded in 2014 and state data indicates enrollment held steady at 16 students until the jump in 2021-2022. McNeil did not provide updated enrollment data for previous years.
Highlander Academy had 60 students but 64 Opportunity Scholarships in 2021-2022, according to the report. In a statement to the BBI after initial publication, the school said the data is incorrect.
Moye Lowe, chairman of the board of directors for Highlander Academy, said the school had 65 enrolled students on Opportunity Scholarships. Of those students, Lowe said 63 received the full $4,200 scholarship, and the other two received $3,780 scholarships.
“We have always shown due diligence and have been accountable for all Opportunity Scholarship monies received by our school,” Lowe said in a letter to the BBI.
Created for You Learning Academy had six students and seven Opportunity Scholarships in 2016, according to the Justice Center report.
A representative from the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority told BBI Thursday that Opportunity Scholarships are not awarded based on enrollment data. Rather, “Scholarships are awarded to eligible students whose parents complete applications on their behalf.”
Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst at the Justice Center who compiled the report, said there is very little accountability when it comes to the scholarships. According to the report, dozens of private schools received about $2.3 million they shouldn’t have; the Robeson County schools received about $176,000.
“There really isn’t anywhere close to an adequate level of financial operational oversight here,” Nordstrom said.
In Robeson County, 428 students attended private schools in 2021-2022, according to the Division of Non-Public Education. Like the rest of North Carolina, private school enrollment has increased over the years in the Border Belt region, which also includes Bladen, Columbus and Scotland counties.
Most of the funding for Opportunity Scholarships goes toward religious schools, which make up the majority of private schools in the state. Many of these schools, including those in Robeson County, have small student populations.
Eight private schools in Robeson County received Opportunity Scholarships in the 2021-2022 school year. Only three of those schools — Antioch Christian Academy, Highlander Christian Academy and Riverside Christian Academy — had an enrollment of 25 or more students.
The General Assembly created Opportunity Scholarships in 2013 to help low-income families send their children to private schools.
Over the years, lawmakers increased the income cap and the scholarship amount for the program. In the 2022-2023 school year, a family of four earning up to $110,000 a year was eligible for a scholarship of up to $6,492.
The General Assembly’s scheduled allocation for the program is $176.5 million for the upcoming school year, up from the current $95 million.
The cost could rise dramatically in 2024-2025, because Republican lawmakers want to essentially eliminate income restrictions to allow many more families to use the program.
House Bill 823, “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future,” passed with a 65-45 vote along party lines. The Senate has drafted but not yet passed a similar bill.
Cooper has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, but the Republican supermajority in both chambers would likely override the veto.
State Rep. Jarrod Lowery, a Robeson County Republican, previously told the BBI he is in favor of expanding the program because all tax-paying families should get the same opportunity.
“Parents know what’s best for their children,” Lowery said. “I think it’s important to give them an opportunity to send them to a school they think is best.”
Critics of the expansion, including Nordstrom, say the program lacks oversight and guts public education.
Nordstrom said data discrepancies are a major concern. Some schools, according to the report, collected voucher money after they stopped reporting enrollment to the state Division of Non-Public Education.
“It’s all made up,” Nordstrom said of the enrollment data. “The only thing not made up is the money going out the door.”
Nordstrom’s report used enrollment data from the state’s Division of Non-Public Education and voucher-recipient data from the State Education Assistance Authority.
A representative from SEAA told BBI on Thursday the numbers won’t always match up because authority’s data is collected over the course of a year while the Department of Non-Public Education’s data is collected from one point in time.
"There are differences in the timing and manner that the data is collected and presented," a statement from SEAA to BBI said. "These obstacles make it difficult to accurately reconcile datasets from the two agencies."
Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said the voucher program is helping North Carolina students.
“We will always be on the forefront guarding an amazing scholarship program that, this school year, helped over 25,000 students obtain access to the school of their choice,” Long said in a statement.
McNeil also defended the Opportunity Scholarship program, saying it “provides families a chance to choose private education for their family. Not because of circumstances, but our basic right to choose.”
Lowe said the scholarship program is especially valuable in poor, rural communities like Robeson County because "it gives area families the means and opportunity to have their children ... experience a college-based curriculum."