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News School board adds voice to voucher complaint

The Macon County Board of Education voted Thursday to join legal action against the state, challenging the constitutionality of a law passed back in July.

The complaint, which was originally filed by the North Carolina School Boards Association in Wake County Superior Court on Dec. 16, challenges the General Assembly’s July decision to provide $4,200 per student in annual taxpayer funds to cover the cost of school vouchers for students electing to attend private schools.

“The Macon County Board of Education was invited, along with all of the other school districts in North Carolina, to join in the North Carolina School Boards Association's challenge to the recently adopted voucher system,” explained Macon County Board of Education attorney John Henning Jr. “As you may know, that legislation was adopted in the 2013 General Assembly session, and provides $4,200 for children who meet certain income guidelines (household income below the threshold for free and reduced lunch eligibility) to attend the private school of their choice. That begins with the 2014-2015 school year, and the General Assembly set aside $10 million for that purpose. The next year, the income guidelines rise to a household income of less than 133 percent of the free and reduced lunch eligibility, at a cost of $50 million. Thereafter the income limitation may disappear altogether.”

The board unanimously voted to join the complaint at a special called meeting last Thursday afternoon.

The state’s voucher program was initiated earlier this year as part of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. This legislation was designed to create “opportunity scholarships” made up of taxpayer dollars to help low-income students attend private schools.

The new legislation has allocated $10 million to the school voucher program, but those speaking out against the law fear that lawmakers could steadily increase that money to upwards of $50 million. Challenging the constitutionality of the law, the petition signed by Macon County school board members argues against diverting tax dollars away from public schools saying that it would be yet another blow to the quality of education in the state.

Macon County superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin believes the board made the right decision in voting to join the lawsuit. “It is important for the Macon County School Board to join this lawsuit. By joining this lawsuit, we are taking a stand to protect our student state funding allotment,” said Dr. Baldwin. “This year alone, 10 million tax dollars will be going to private schools through the 'Opportunity Scholarship' program. And next year, an additional $40 million is earmarked for these same schools. This is coming at a time when the Macon County School’s state allotment was cut by $1.6 million in 2013-14. For the 2013-2014 school year, we have 14 fewer teachers and 10 fewer teacher assistants. Our school system has also lost two assistant principals and at least three other administrative staff positions. Additionally, our instructional material allotment was cut by 50 percent and our textbook allotment by 75 percent. In other words, as our students are preparing to take a multitude of state exams without necessary instructional materials, textbooks, and teacher assistants, $10 million ($40 million next year) will be going to private schools. These private schools receive little oversight in how they spend this money, nor are they held accountable for student achievement. This is not fair to the students and parents of Macon County.”

Nearly 20 schools across the 100 counties in the state have elected to join the lawsuit, hoping that there will be power in numbers. Additional schools are expected to join the lawsuit as they hold their monthly meetings and are able to vote on the measure.

Not only are opponents against the use of taxpayer dollars, which will be taken away from public education, those speaking against the measure are concerned with the lack of accountability expected from charter schools.

For schools to be identified as being eligible to receive funding through the voucher program, schools must provide documentation for required tuition and fees, conduct a criminal background check for only the staff member with the highest decision making authority, provide an annual report of student’s progress to a parent or guardian, administer a nationally standardized test once a year, and track graduation rates.

Henning Jr. explained that while the lawsuit has various claims, the basis of the lawsuit is that the Opportunity Scholarship Act:

  • Appropriates public funds for a private purpose, in violation of the North Carolina Constitution's public purpose clause;
  • Provides those funds without requiring private schools to follow any educational standards or to refrain from discriminatory practices, in violation of the NC Constitution's guarantee of a sound basic education (the latter of which was the holding of the Leandro cases) and guarantees of nondiscriminatory treatment, and;
  • Does all of this by reducing the State School Fund, in violation of the Article IX, Section 6 provision of the NC Constitution that the State School Fund "shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of public schools.”
  • “As with the recent successful challenge brought by the North Carolina School Boards Association concerning virtual charter schools, local boards are being invited to join at no cost to the local board,” said Henning. “All costs of the litigation are being paid by the School Boards Association.”

Jackson County Superintendent Michael Murray said he plans to bring up the discussion to his board during its January meeting on the 27th, but is not sure what they will decide in regards to joining other districts across the state.

Update on teacher tenure

The Macon County Board of Education continued discussion on what criteria to follow in order to identify the 25 percent of top performing teachers in the system in order to comply with new teacher tenure laws. Dr. Baldwin noted that while the conversation has been started, the board has more to consider.

“I, along with the MCS Board and district leadership continue to work with principals and teachers to work out the details of the selection process for the 25 percent of teachers who will be offered the fouryear contract and raise,” said Dr. Baldwin. “We have identified faculty in all 11 of the schools in Macon County who are eligible for consideration and we now have to eliminate approximately 200 of them from consideration. We continue to compile information from the teachers’ surveys and work with our attorneys to determine the criteria from these that we can legally use for selecting 25 percent of the eligible teachers. Also, we are planning a question and answer session for our teachers so they can be as informed as possible about the processes and decisions regarding accepting or declining the four-year contract offer and pay raise.”

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