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.

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”

on the record

Eva Moskowitz sends letter calling Success board chair’s comments ‘indefensible’ — but also defending his record

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy

In response to widespread criticism of a racial comment made by Success Academy’s chairman, the leader of the charter network, Eva Moskowitz, sent a letter Tuesday to parents, teachers and staff.

In the letter, Moskowitz used strong language to condemn Daniel Loeb’s comments. On Facebook last week, Loeb wrote that Andrea Stewart-Cousins, an African-American state senator whom he called loyal to unions, does “more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Loeb later apologized and deleted the comment.

In today’s letter, Moskowitz called the comments “indefensible,” “insensitive” and “hurtful,” a more aggressive rebuke than her previous statement.

Yet she also defended Loeb’s track record in the letter, pointing out his commitment to Success and various social causes. A spokeswoman for Success Academy confirmed that Loeb remains the board’s chairman.

The racist violence that ensued this past weekend in Charlottesville put an even more damaging spin on his comments. At a rally Monday to support Stewart-Cousins, the Senate’s minority leader, she made the connection between her situation and the events in Charlottesville.

“That is extremely hurtful given the legacy, certainly, of people of color — my ancestors,” said Stewart-Cousins. “We all got a chance to see it in Charlottesville, what that represents.”

Moskowitz made a veiled reference to the weekend’s events in the letter, saying that engaging students is “all the more important in the face of the broader trauma and crisis we are facing as a country.”

Here is the full text of the letter: