After Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood understandably ruled last week that the sketchy, unaccountable private school voucher scheme created by the 2013 General Assembly was unconstitutional, voucher supporters responded almost in unison with a single talking point, that somehow the judge had “trapped underprivileged children in failing schools.”
The claim may be offensive and disingenuous but it’s not new. It’s been a common refrain among school privatization proponents for years that it’s all about the poor kids, that their prime motivation is to help low-income children who aren’t doing very well in traditional public schools.
It is absurd on its face. Pro-voucher leaders like Rep. Paul Stam have said openly their ultimate goal is to provide vouchers for every child in private or religious schools, regardless of family income.
They are simply using low-income children to sell their privatization agenda. Their ultimate goal is the dismantling of the current public school system which they often refer to pejoratively as “government monopoly schools,” explicitly making the issue part of the hard-right rabidly anti-government agenda.
As for helping low-income children, it’s more than a little ironic that the same people clamoring for vouchers refuse to adequately fund pre-k programs proven to help at-risk kids and after school mentoring programs that prevent high school students from dropping out of school.
They also routinely oppose programs that help people lift themselves and their children out of poverty, like the state Earned Income Tax Credit or the expansion of Medicaid or even raising the minimum wage.
Then there are the ongoing funding cuts to traditional public schools that disproportionately affect low-income children. Textbook funding has been reduced to the level that many schools don’t have enough books to go around. That’s not as big of a burden on wealthy families who can buy their own books or pay to download them at home.
Taking teacher assistants out of classrooms in the early grades means there’s one fewer adult to help children struggling to read, often low-income children whose single parent is working two jobs to make ends meet and can’t spend as much they’d like helping with school work.
Yet many voucher supporters continue to complain that public schools are failing to educate low-income children even as they are slashing funding that schools use to help poor students.
It lays bare their real agenda of dismantling public education.
And there’s another equally hypocritical part of the voucher push, the startling lack of accountability in how taxpayer money is used when it pays for vouchers at private and religious schools.
Lindsay Wagner of NC Policy Watch reported last year that Paramount Christian Academy in Davidson County, on the list of voucher-eligible schools, has three students and one teacher and the school meets in a room in a private home, functioning more as a home school than a private academy.
Paramount, like many of the fundamentalist schools on the voucher list, also uses fundamentalist textbooks that teach students that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that gay people have no more claims to civil rights than child molesters or rapists.
More than 83 voucher-eligible schools have fewer than 10 students, many with only one or two teachers. Many of the schools use the same textbooks as Paramount that distort history and demonize groups of people.
All that is apparently fine with voucher supporters. They don’t care what the schools teach or how they spend their public money. There is no minimum number of students a school must have enrolled, no qualifications that teachers must have, no restrictions on the curriculum that is taught, even no prohibitions on discrimination.
Judge Hobgood said in his ruling that the voucher scheme “fails the children of North Carolina when they (are) sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.” Such a scheme “serves only private interests.”
Hobgood is right. The voucher program does serve only private and ideological interests.
That’s what it is all about, not helping low-income kids—no matter how many times they say otherwise.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch.