Should teachers have some type of educational background or teaching license?
Should schools that receive public dollars provide transparency for how those dollars are spent?
Should North Carolinians expect to know how well students in schools funded by tax dollars are learning?
Should we have some assurance that our tax dollars are not being used to discriminate against groups of students and/or parents?
Should the governing body (i.e. school board) of each district be elected to represent the community it serves and held accountable by voters/taxpayers?
Whether your answer to these questions is yes or no, the degree to which schools actually have policies in place or are regulated in a way to address these questions depends entirely on whether they are traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools, even though all of them may be funded by our tax dollars.
With a massive NC private school voucher program expansion in the proposed House and Senate budgets, it is worth examining which policies apply to which schools and how much the public knows about the schools they’re funding. Although more than 70% of the U.S. population lives in households without a school-aged child, having a well-educated citizenry affects everyone, so accounting for how tax dollars are spent is important.
The NC Department of Administration Division of Non-Public Education registers and monitors both conventional private schools and homeschools. Each year, the division publishes a report containing the publicly available information on private schools. It’s a thin, three page report with minimal information: number of students by school, county, and year, number and percentage of school by type (i.e. independent or religious), and number and percentage of students by sex (i.e. male or female). Taxpayers funding school vouchers see no budget on how their money is being spent and there are no public meetings or ways to the public to give input on schools procedures or policies.
No information is provided by these private schools about student achievement or population subgroups such as special education, English learner, race, ethnicity, or family income status. Lacking any such data, it’s difficult for the public to know whether students are learning or if schools are discriminating against students or families.
In fact, although voucher-accepting private schools are required to administer an achievement test each year, they are allowed to select the test, be in charge of how it is administered and the results are not made publicly available. So the public is left with no objective measure of whether students are learning anything at all.
Traditional public schools and charter schools are required to follow the state standard course of study and show the assessment results, but voucher-receiving private schools have no curriculum guidelines at all. In fact, they could even operate under an “unschooling” philosophy while accepting public tax dollars.
In traditional public schools, 100% of the teaching staff must have a license or be working toward one to provide instruction to our children. In charter schools, the requirement if that just 50% of the teacher must be certified, and in private schools the requirement drops to 0%. Teachers do not to be certified nor do they have to even have a college degree.
Traditional public schools and charter schools must also provide a minimum of 185 days (or 1,025 hours) of instruction across at least nine months. Private schools have no minimum days or hours of instruction. They are simply required to provide some instruction across nine months in a given year. Private schools are also allowed to determine their own policies and procedures for handling excessive student absences, including the maximum number of days a student may be absent and remain enrolled. Compare this to the requirement we place on public schools for students attendance and related retention policies.
Although state law does prohibit private schools from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin, with no tracking mechanism in place to show that they comply or not making it a toothless requirement. And to date, state law does not require voucher-receiving private schools to follow other federal non-discrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Title IX. (See our report for more information), yet they would receive public tax dollars.
In contrast to the absence of private school data, the NC Department of Public Instruction makes extensive and detailed data available about student achievement, demographics, and school finances for traditional public schools and some data about charter schools. The public can find out how many students achieved a passing score on state tests, what a school or district’s demographic make-up looks like and how it has changed over time, whether students fall into special needs categories, how many disciplinary actions occurred in a given year, how much money was spent on teachers and textbooks versus facilities, and answers to just about any other question one can ask about schools. There is full transparency for tax dollars at work with public schools. Annual public audits of the financial books is required by state law and available to the public.
Traditional public school leadership is also open to public scrutiny, as the past few years have highlighted. Traditional school boards must conduct some public meetings and provide an opportunity for public comment. Not so for charter and private schools – there is no public input required or allowed.
In addition, all traditional public school board members must live within their school district and have to be elected by registered voters. These elected board members represent the communities they serve where all citizens, whether parents or not, can vote in school board elections. However, only 50% of charter school board members must reside in North Carolina and elections are not required. There are no residency or election requirements for private school board members along with no requirement that their governing boards even be shown publicly.
All North Carolinians deserve to know whether their tax dollars are being spent responsibly to create a better community for everyone. Comparing requirements between traditional public schools and private schools reveals stark differences. When tax dollars are being spent to support private schools, the public needs accountability to prevent financial fraud and poor student outcomes.
More transparency for how voucher-receiving private schools use their public funds would also help legislators make more-informed budget and policy decisions and evaluate the value of the money spent. Transparency and meaningful data are important requirements when hard-earned public tax dollars are funneled to unaccountable private schools, the same information we expect from publicly funded public schools.