school barriers

Even with a voucher, families find themselves facing extra fees for private school

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

A new study finds that families who use a private-school voucher are happy with their choice — but also points to an obstacle that keeps some families from using a voucher at all.

The problem: In North Carolina, vouchers don’t stretch far enough for many poor families, leaving them unable to cover the true cost of a private school education.

“Parents cited hidden or unanticipated costs, such as transportation, as well as breakfast and lunches, which would otherwise be provided free of charge at a traditional public school,” authors Anna Egalite, Ashley Gray, and Trip Stallings wrote.

The research, which was released through North Carolina State University and hasn’t been formally peer-reviewed, points to potential benefits and downsides of school vouchers, a key priority of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

North Carolina’s program offers a voucher — called an “opportunity scholarship” — of up to $4,200 to families. In the 2015–16 school year, there was funding for over 6,000 students to participate, but only about 3,500 ended up using a voucher, about two-thirds of those applicants.

The researchers convened focus groups and surveyed thousands of parents who applied to the state’s voucher program, which began in 2014. A key caveat: the survey was voluntary, and only about a quarter of applicants responded.

Still, the report sheds light on potential barriers to using North Carolina’s program.

Wrote one parent in response to a survey question: “We couldn’t afford for them to eat breakfast at home then bring their lunches, daily. So we had to send them to public school cause the breakfast and lunches are provided free.”  

Even families who took advantage of a voucher said it generally did not cover the full cost of the private school. Only about one in five families surveyed said the scholarship paid the entirety of school expenses, with another two-thirds saying that it paid for most of the private school costs.

“I make minimum wage, was awarded the full amount of the scholarships, and still have to pay about $4000/year which is the remainder of the tuition cost, application fees, yearly activity fees and other nonrefundable administrative costs, lunches, and of course the uniforms,” wrote one parent. “There isn’t any assistance available for these things. I wish my kids could play sports too but it just costs too much.”  

Another potential hurdle for poor families: consistent access to the internet or phone. In a forthcoming study, Egalite, an assistant professor at North Carolina State, finds that over a quarter of applicants in 2016 did not receive a voucher because they did not respond to the state’s attempt to communicate by phone or email.

One barrier that did not come up, at least in focus groups and surveys, were discriminatory rules against LGBT students or families, a topic that has received considerable press attention in North Carolina and elsewhere.

One way to make the vouchers more useful to low-income families would be to increase the funding per student, although this would be unlikely to satisfy critics of vouchers who argue that they drain funding from public schools.

Egalite also suggested expanding the difference between vouchers given to lower-income families versus middle-income families. (North Carolina’s program already has this feature, though only to a slight degree: a family of four making less than $45,500 qualifies for the full voucher, while a family of four making between up to $60,528 can receive 90 percent of the full voucher.)

Meanwhile, consistent with past research on school choice, families who did use a voucher were generally pleased with the quality of their private schools relative to the public school their students had switched out of, according to the survey.

The vast majority of families gave the private school an A or B grade, and were also generally satisfied with safety, teacher quality, discipline, and values-based instruction.

North Carolina voucher

But Egalite notes that it’s unclear why parents rated the new schools so highly.

“Some people put a lot of weight in that and think that’s a really important metric,” she told Chalkbeat. “I think it’s hard to parse out, when you’re looking at first-time school choice users — are they happy with the school that they’ve chosen or are they happy that they got to exercise choice for the first time?”

It’s also possible that families who responded to the survey were more satisfied than those who did not.

School choice advocates have increasingly focused on parental satisfaction and educational attainment measures, as opposed to test scores, for judging the impact of voucher programs. A number of recent studies have shown that students perform worse on tests after receiving a voucher, but in some cases catch up after a few years in the program.

To date, the impact of North Carolina’s voucher program on student achievement has not been rigorously analyzed, though Egalite is working on a study to compare the performance of public and private schools, using tests administered to students who volunteer.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”