By Sarah Nagem
Deanne Meadows worries for the future of her rural North Carolina school district if lawmakers allow all families to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools.
Parents who already advocate for their children would be most likely to leave, said Meadows, superintendent of Columbus County Schools. Many of the remaining students, she said, would be those with higher needs that come at a cost to districts.
“Unfortunately, it’s becoming a method of segregation when you do this,” Meadows said. “We need children of all kinds in public school. That’s what our society is made up of.”
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The Republican-led House of Representatives passed the Choose Your School, Choose Your Future Act last month with a 65-45 vote along party lines. A similar bill is working its way through the Senate.
Proponents of the bill say every family, not just those with low incomes, should have access to Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools. State Rep. Jarrod Lowery, a Robeson County Republican, said it’s only fair since wealthier families also pay taxes and might be frustrated by low-performing public schools.
“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 argue that eliminating income requirements for Opportunity Scholarships would disproportionately affect small, rural school districts like those in the state’s Border Belt region, including Columbus County Schools. The district serves about 5,000 students in southeastern North Carolina.
Critics also say the change would come at a time when traditional public schools are already losing students to charter schools and home schools.
Columbus County Schools saw a 16% drop in enrollment between 2014 and 2021, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The county’s population shrank by 12% during the same period.
In response, the district closed several schools over the past few years. Meadows said it would be tough to close more schools: Columbus is the third-largest county in the state geographically, and the district does not want students to ride the bus for longer than 90 minutes.
“I can only consolidate so much,” she said.
Unlike traditional public schools, private schools don’t have to provide students with meals and transportation. Meadows said that’s a barrier for many Columbus County parents who work two jobs to provide for their families.
About 70% of students in the district are considered economically disadvantaged and are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to data from U.S. News & World Report. That compares to about half of students statewide.
Public schools also provide services for students with special needs that might not be available in private schools, Meadows said.
“There is no choice for a lot of families,” she said.
‘It will rob the public schools’
In the Border Belt region of Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties, 650 students received Opportunity Scholarships this school year, according to the program that was enacted a decade ago.
Sixty-one recipients are in Columbus County. Scotland County, where the public school district serves about the same number of students, has three times as many recipients – 182.
Since those students attended private schools, Scotland County Schools missed out on $1.4 million based on the state’s per-pupil funding of $7,747 in 2021-2022.
The money would account for less than 2% of the proposed budget that Interim Superintendent Robert Logan presented to county commissioners in May. But school leaders say every bit helps as they face rising costs for salaries, utilities and more.
“It will rob the public schools of that needed funding,” said Rick Singletary, chairman of the Scotland County school board and a retired principal. “The goal (of the legislative bill), I think, is to destroy and eliminate public education.”
Opportunities Scholarships were enacted a decade ago for low-income families who could not afford private school tuition for their children. Under the program, a family of three could make just under $46,000 a year to qualify for full tuition in the amount of $6,492 next school year.
The program has led to big enrollment increases in private schools across the state, many of them with religious affiliations.
Private schools in North Carolina enrolled 115,311 students in 2021-2022, up from 95,768 in 2013-2014.
A total of 1,031 students attended 16 private schools in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties in 2021-2022, according to the state Department of Administration.
Twelve of the schools are religious, the data shows.
State Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, said he didn’t think expanding the Opportunity Scholarship program would have much of an impact locally. He said it matters most in the state’s largest cities that have big discrepancies in school performance.
“The kids in the inner cities are the ones who are really struggling,” Britt said.
'They deserve what's best'
Many public schools in rural southeastern North Carolina lag behind the state.
More than half of the schools in Robeson County are considered low-performing by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Throughout the district, 73% students were not proficient in math and reading in 2021-2022. Statewide, about half of students were not proficient.
Lowery, who attended public schools in Robeson County, said he was shocked when he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and discovered some of his peers had been exposed to more rigorous material in high school.
“I was sitting beside students who had already read ‘The Prince’ by Machiavelli,” Lowery said. “I was like, ‘Who’s the prince? Who’s Machiavelli?’”
Lowery said Robeson County leaders must step up and give more money to schools. Meanwhile, he said, teachers need hefty raises: He would like starting teachers to earn at least $50,000 a year.
Lowery said a “false dichotomy” has emerged in which some people argue that public education and school choice can’t co-exist. He thinks they can.
“To improve our public schools is going to take some time,” he said. “For those kids there now, they deserve what’s best.”
Singletary said private schools don't always provide a better education than public schools. Little data exists about private schools' performance because they are not held to the same testing and growth standards, he said.
Singletary said he has seen students leave for private schools and return to public classrooms.
“You would think they would be advanced," he said. "But we would often have to do some sort of remediation for them.”
Meadows said she was particularly dismayed that the legislation would allow students already attending private schools to get vouchers.
Under the bill, wealthier families would be eligible to receive up to 90% of the voucher amount.
It's important to remember that most students go to public schools, and they need resources, Meadows said.
“Where's the support for those children?” she asked. “Why are they not the priority, versus the few that are going to these other choice locations? Why can't the priority be the majority, which is those who attend public school?”