With North Carolina’s Republican state legislators poised to massively expand public funding for school vouchers, a new analysis of school enrollment vs. current voucher spending finds that private schools may be fraudulently claiming millions of dollars in vouchers for students they don’t have.
Charlotte-area Representative Tricia Cotham’s recent betrayal of her constituents by switching parties just months after being elected handed a supermajority to the NC GOP and effectively ended Governor Cooper’s ability to veto bad legislation.
Cotham and her school-privatizing colleagues then filed a bill which will increase funding for vouchers by hundreds of millions of dollars a year as well as eliminating income eligibility requirements, meaning taxpayers will now subsidize the private school tuition of wealthy families whose children already attend private schools.
You’d think that North Carolina’s Republican leadership would want taxpayers to know whether they’re getting a good return on investment for all those billions of dollars that will now be flowing into private schools instead of public schools. After all, we’re talking about the self-styled party of fiscal responsibility, right?
But NC’s “Opportunity Scholarship” voucher system is the least accountable in the nation, requiring no tests to measure student learning outcomes. We have no way of knowing whether all that money is actually helping children.
Nordstrom compared enrollment numbers with voucher claims and found multiple cases where private schools claimed more vouchers than they had students, and even some cases where private schools accepted voucher payments from the state after the schools had closed.
Credit: Kris Nordstrom, NC Justice Center
The data shows at least $2.3 million in fraudulent payments, but it’s possible the real number is much higher. That’s because hundreds of vouchers have been paid out to schools that don’t even report enrollment.
Our General Assembly needs to pump the brakes on voucher expansion and focus on improving Opportunity Scholarship’s accountability–both in tracking how taxpayer money is doled out and in objectively measuring the impact of vouchers on student learning outcomes. North Carolina deserves nothing less.
Legislation filed in the North Carolina General Assembly last week would authorize Beaufort County Public Schools to ignore the state’s standard course of study and instead teach a controversial social studies curriculum developed by a conservative Michigan college with close ties to former President Donald Trump.
The bill was filed by Rep. Keith Kidwell, who represents Beaufort, Dare, Pamlico and Hyde counties.
Scroll to page 2 of the pdf below to see the relevant portion of Kidwell’s bill.
The curriculum Kidwell is proposing be used in Beaufort County’s public schools was created by Michigan-based Hillsdale College after white fragility over Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project prompted former president Donald Trump to issue an executive order setting up what he called a “patriotic education” commission.
Trump said at the time that the commission was intended to counter “hateful lies” being taught to children in American schools which he said constituted “a form of child abuse.”
The commission’s report, published on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January 2021, was widely criticized by actual historians as a whitewashed take on American history for its downplaying of Founding Fathers’ support for slavery and quoting Dr. Martin Luther King out of context in order to create a falsely rosy view of race in the United States, among other reasons.
Hillsdale College released the “1776 curriculum” in July 2021. In its “Note to Teachers,” the curriculum reminds anyone who will be using the curriculum to teach children that “America is an exceptionally good country” and ends with the exhortation to “Learn it, wonder at it, love it, and teach so your students will, too.”
Kidwell’s bill comes just days after Representative Tricia Cotham’s party switch handed North Carolina Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature. That means there’s a good chance this Trump-inspired, whitewashed version of American history will end up on desks in Beaufort County, and there’s no reason to think other counties won’t follow suit.
According to DPI’s Statistical Profile, more than half of Beaufort County’s 5,821 public school students are students of color. Those students deserve to have their stories and their ancestors’ stories told. Those students and all students deserve to learn real American history, warts and all, not a watered-down, Donald Trump-conceived version designed to make white people feel comfortable.
You can review the entire Hillsdale curriculum below:
The contract was brought to the State Board of Education for approval in January 2022. At the meeting, board member Amy White indicated she’d received an email complaining that the training amounted to critical race theory. (You can listen to the board’s discussion here)
White did not share the source of the complaint, but the ultra right wing group Education First Alliance made some noise about this issue around that same time.
The next day the board voted 7-4 to approve the contract with board members White, Olivia Oxendine, Treasurer Dale Folwell and Lt. Governor Mark Robinson opposing. Superintendent Truitt does not have a vote on the board.
The following week, Truitt indicated on her official Twitter account that she would not carry out the board’s wishes on this matter.
In a January 25, 2022 letter to the institute’s director, Truitt complained about guidance on how teachers should discuss racial identity, saying “DPI leadership does not agree with some of the strategies the ELN [Early Learning Network] includes in its efforts to teach teachers about equity and cultural responsiveness.”
Truitt then chose to defy the state board’s authority and unilaterally cancel the contract.
When asked by the Raleigh News and Observer about this matter, State Board Chair Eric Davis said, “After we approved it, she switched gears. It did not sit well with us.” Davis indicated that the state board had passed new rules clarifying that the superintendent must act on the direction of the board.
Sec. 4. State Board of Education. … (2) Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Superintendent of Public Instruction shall be the secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education.
Sec. 5. Powers and duties of Board. The State Board of Education shall supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for its support, except the funds mentioned in Section 7 of this Article, and shall make all needed rules and regulations in relation thereto, subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly.
A Charlotte-area state legislator’s recent decision to switch parties just months after being elected as a Democrat all but assures a massive expansion of North Carolina taxpayer dollars flowing into school vouchers.
In addition to increasing funding for vouchers by hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the recently filed bill eliminates income eligibility requirements so that any student in the state–regardless of financial need–may use public money to attend private schools.
Governor Roy Cooper has vetoed previous attempts to expand school vouchers. However, Mecklenburg County Representative Tricia Cotham’s recent defection to the Republican Party gave the GOP a supermajority in the state legislature and makes it much more likely the bill will become law.
A history rooted in racism
The roots of school vouchers in our country can be traced back to the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court court case in which justices ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the Constitution.
Following this ruling, white leaders in many communities tried all kinds of devious ways to subvert it. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, those efforts included eliminating taxes in order to defund schools and closing them rather than simply allowing racial integration.
After pressure by the courts to comply with Brown increased, the Virginia state legislature created a “tuition grant program” which provided funding for students to attend private schools or public schools in other areas. In Prince Edward County, black students were denied access to those tuition grants.
Most voucher funds in NC used by white students
White flight is not as socially acceptable as it once was, and modern-day proponents of school vouchers often sell them as an equalizer that allows students of color to opt out of struggling traditional public schools. However, in North Carolina, the majority of voucher funds go to white students–despite the fact that students of color form a majority of the k-12 student racial demographics.
Vouchers fund religious schools that discriminate
Another problem with expansion of vouchers in North Carolina is that this practice directs public dollars to private schools which focus on religious teaching and are legally able to discriminate against children.
Fayetteville Christian School is pocketing a cool $1,336,793 in taxpayer funding this school year. Here’s their policy on religious discrimination and what they’ll do if they find out that Heather has two mommies:
ADMISSIONS REQUIREMENTS The student and at least one parent with whom the student resides must be in full agreement with the FCS Statement of Faith and have received Jesus Christ as their Savior. In addition, the parent and student must regularly fellowship in a local faith based, Bible believing church. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that belong to or express faith in non-Christian religions such as, but not limited to: Mormons (LDS Church), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims (Islam), non-Messianic Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. Furthermore, students and families are expected to manifest by example Christian virtue in their lives both in and out of school by living life according to Biblical truth. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that engage in illicit drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality (LGBT) or other behaviors that Scripture defines as deviate and perverted. Once admitted, if the student or parent/guardian with whom the student resides becomes involved in any of the above activities it will be grounds for dismissal of the student/family from the school.
The real problems traditional public schools face
A common refrain for school privatizers is to say we just need to provide more choice and let the free market figure it out. And we have to acknowledge that many of our traditional public schools are struggling. But rather than opportunistically siphoning away their funding, let’s take an honest look at why those schools may be struggling.
The party that Representative Cotham just joined and handed a veto-proof majority to has maintained a gerrymandered stranglehold on power in North Carolina since 2010. During that time our state legislature has passed law after law that has made it harder to attract and retain excellent teachers:
‣ Cut master’s pay supplement and longevity pay ‣ Revoked retiree health benefits ‣ Eliminated due process rights ‣ Gutted Teaching Fellows program ‣ Removed state funding for professional development
Besides running off good teachers, lawmakers have enacted other policy changes that harm student learning:
‣ Uncapped class sizes grades 4-12 ‣ Cut 7,000 teaching assistants ‣ Slashed funding for school technology and classroom supplies ‣ Increased volume of standardized testing
Since they took power, Republicans have repeatedly cut taxes on both corporations and wealthy individuals, depriving public schools of billions of dollars in sorely needed revenue. In just a few years North Carolina’s corporate income tax will be eliminated entirely.
Republican lawmakers have also regularly thumbed their noses at court decisions demanding increased investment in public education, with Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger saying, “If judges want to get into the field of appropriating, they need to run for the legislature.”
Reversing the above changes that have devastated public education in North Carolina would be a good start toward improving the education students can get in traditional public schools.
Of course, doing so would require state legislators who actually *want* strong public schools.
If you object to your public tax dollars funding religious education and discriminatory admissions practices, please contact your state legislator and urge them to oppose expansion of school vouchers.
If you’re interested in sharing your thoughts with Representative Cotham over her betrayal of campaign donors and volunteers as well as the Mecklenburg County voters who elected her to a Democratic seat by a nearly 20% margin over her Republican opponent, her email address is:
The former Charlotte Mecklenburg District 6 Board of Education member who lost his reelection bid last November is due in Mecklenburg County Superior Court next month to face a misdemeanor larceny charge.
The criminal charge stems from two incidents involving campaign signs linking former BOE member Sean Strain with the ultra-conservative fringe group Moms 4 Liberty.
According to media reports published last November, Strain allegedly ripped up one sign campaign volunteer Debbie Baynard had left at South County Library. In the other incident, Baynard alleges Strain sneaked up behind her, grabbed the sign away from her and took off.
The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s website indicates that the room Strain is scheduled to appear in is used for “Citizen’s Court” cases in which one individual files misdemeanor charges against another. The website explains that, in such cases, the victim and the defendant “attempt to achieve a resolution with the help of mediators.” If no such resolution is reached, a judge will issue a verdict. If that verdict is guilty, the defendant may then appeal the decision for a jury trial.
You may view the publicly available court document below. I’ve redacted Strain’s address.
If there is anyone involved in the controversial North Carolina teacher merit pay work who should understand the importance of giving teachers a seat at the table when redesigning how they are paid, it’s the chair of the State Board of Education.
After all, the last time Eric Davis tried–and failed–to pass merit pay against teacher objections ended with the then-chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education apologizing for not adequately involving teachers in the work.
Meeting minutes from that period recorded Chair Davis’s pledge that in the future he would seek to “allow for meaningful dialogue with teachers; to create ways for our teachers to participate given their high workloads and demands beyond what is currently available; and to incorporate their constructive input into the process.”
Eric Davis served on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education from 2009 to 2017 and chaired the body from 2009 to 2011.
In 2011, Davis worked with CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman and Mecklenburg County Representative Ruth Samuelson to draft HB 546, a bill that would authorize Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to go off the state’s mandatory experience-based teacher pay scale and move to a “performance-based compensation system.”
Superintendent Gorman’s team included analyst Tom Tomberlin and Director of Human Capital Strategies Andy Baxter, who worked on developing the new compensation model and (unsuccessfully) pitching it to wary teachers.
Both men now work for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and have been heavily involved in the current statewide merit pay push.
But back to 2011: When news of the proposed legislation emerged, Charlotte educators were not pleased–in large part because the bill would have allowed the district to make drastic changes to compensation without consulting teachers.
HB 546 represented a major departure from a previous state law passed in 2007 which allowed districts to pilot merit pay only if a majority of the teachers who would be impacted by the plan had approved it via a secret ballot vote:
Large groups of educators and concerned community members began turning up to CMS board meetings to speak against the proposed merit pay switch. Some board members began to feel HB 546 was the wrong way to go, most notably Reverend Tom Tate.
At a May 2011 board meeting, Tate expressed concern that the bill “was crafted without input from the teachers” and said this kind of work should be done “with teachers and not to teachers.” He recommended taking Representative Samuelson up on her offer to “park” the bill for a year and allow for more discussion of the matter before proceeding.
In response, Chair Davis indicated he did not agree that teachers should have the right to make decisions about compensation plans approved by elected officials, but he added that he regretted “the manner in which this was implemented because it has alienated our teachers and strained the relationship between our teachers and district leadership.”
Just two weeks later Superintendent Gorman abruptly announced his resignation from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. Although local work on pay for performance initiatives did pop up again from time to time (including in 2013 when Davis reminded board meeting attendees that he “deeply regrets the frustration, anger, and mistrust” caused by attempting to move teachers to merit pay without their consent), Charlotte teachers were never really threatened with removal of the experience-based salary structure again.
And this time it’s not just Charlotte-area educators who are facing the threat of merit pay, but every teacher in the state.
Under Eric Davis’s leadership, the North Carolina State Board of Education recently approved a blueprint which clears the way for switching the state’s teachers from an experience-based pay scale to the country’s first statewide system of merit pay.
Teachers’ compensation and ability to advance their careers in the proposed system will be determined by standardized test results, principal and peer evaluations, student surveys, and possibly other measures that have not yet been determined. The proposal has proven deeply unpopular with classroom teachers who are concerned about the emphasis on standardized testing and subjectivity of proposed evaluation instruments, among other things.
In a December editorial, State Board Chair Eric Davis vowed to “continue to listen to our educators” while changing teacher pay and licensure, as if teacher voice had been a priority for the state board since work on the current reform effort began four years ago.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as the following sequence demonstrates with crystal clarity.
Work on the Pathways to Excellence pay for performance plan began with the North Carolina Human Capital Roundtable, whose first meeting in December 2018 Davis attended before handing the role off to his fellow state board member and designee Jill Camnitz. The Roundtable was completely devoid of K-12 teachers and drafted the merit pay proposal in private, likely in violation of state open meetings law.
Public records reveal that Camnitz later schemed with State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and then-PEPSC Chair Patrick Miller to prevent media organization Education NC from independently surveying teachers to gather input on the merit pay plan over fears of losing control of the public narrative. They didn’t want to hear what teachers had to say unless they had absolute control over how that information would be used.
The firm suggested “It’s in our best interest to always speak about the plan in a positive manner.” It’s unclear whose best interest they meant but probably safe to assume that wasn’t a reference to North Carolina teachers and students.
Eckel and Vaughan also advised using former NC Teacher of the Year Maureen Stover to help with “gaining the trust of teachers around the state” and recommended identifying teachers from varied parts of North Carolina to “submit an opinion piece in support to the [sic] changes to the system to a targeted outlet in their region.”
When teacher outcry over the controversial plan began in spring of 2022, DPI hastily assembled its own “teacher listening sessions” which were open only to teachers who had received invitations. Feedback provided by teachers on the proposed changes was overwhelmingly negative. It was summarily ignored.
The PEPSC Commission, which is advising Davis’s board on the switch to merit pay, only includes one currently practicing traditional classroom teacher. That teacher rarely participates in PEPSC’s meetings, presumably because they are scheduled during the school day.
PEPSC is now putting together new committees to continue the design process. If PEPSC’s recent history is any indication, it seems likely the new committees will also meet when teachers are busy teaching, rendering invitations to classroom teachers to participate nothing more than a PR move which will allow Eric Davis and other leaders of the merit pay work to disingenuously claim they sought input from teachers.
Speaking of history, they say those who don’t learn from it are doomed to repeat it.
That saying applies to State Board Chair Eric Davis, who appears to have forgotten his 2011 promise to involve teachers with designing policies that impact their pay.
It also applies to North Carolina’s teachers, who need to speak up about their concerns with this misguided approach to compensation and efforts to silence teacher voices the way Charlotte Mecklenburg educators did back in 2011.
You can email State Board Chair Eric Davis at email@example.com to request directly that PEPSC committees include practicing classroom teachers and that meetings are held outside school hours.
A member of the shadowy group which drafted the controversial North Carolina teacher merit pay proposal blasted the plan in a private email to a colleague last year, calling out numerous flaws with the approach and deeming it “undercooked goulash.”
The refreshingly candid email was written in July 2021, a few months after PEPSC subcommittees took over work on the Human Capital Roundtable’s merit pay proposal.
At that point the HCR had shifted into marketing mode and begun assembling a “dream team” called the UpliftEd Coalition which was intended to drum up public support for making North Carolina the first state in the country to move all teachers to merit pay instead of compensating them based on years of experience.
In the email, the HCR member, who shall remain nameless, blasted the project as “undercooked goulash” and identified a variety of problems with the project, including:
➢ Unlikely that larger salaries and professional development will be funded
➢ Reduces rigor in teacher preparation
➢ Failed to adequately involve traditional classroom teachers and district personnel in design
This individual’s concerns mirror those which have since been voiced by many, including lots of classroom teachers and district personnel.
Despite the overwhelmingly negative feedback, the PEPSC Commission (kind of) voted 9-7 last month to advance a broad framework to the State Board of Education which would clear the way for the still-undercooked goulash to be officially considered.
The email was recently obtained via public records request, and you can read it below:
This week North Carolina took the first step toward moving all teachers from a pay scale that rewards long term commitment to a career in public education to one which compensates teachers based on measures like standardized test results and student surveys.
The initial vote ended in a 7-7 tie. Then two members (Sam Houston and Michael Maher) who had left the virtual meeting were called back in to vote, but no mention was made of attempting to reach a third member (Anthony Graham) who had also left the meeting.
Both individuals who returned to the meeting voted yes.
Elon University College of Education Dean Dr. Ann Bullock asked State Board attorney Allison Schaefer if it was proper to call people to return to the meeting to vote. Schaefer said that since Houston was having technical difficulties it was acceptable.
She did not explain why Maher’s vote counted or comment on Dr. Graham’s absence.
You can listen to the voting portion of the meeting here:
Any way you slice it, the vote shows serious differences of opinion among constituent groups. On one hand we have some deans of Colleges of Education (including PEPSC Chair Dr. Van Dempsey) voting to move forward with a proposal which would make the kind of thorough teacher preparation they specialize in completely optional. On the other we have Dean Bullock from Elon University saying no, this isn’t the way (and again, it’s not clear how Winston Salem State’s Dr. Graham feels since he did not vote).
As for the teacher view, two teachers voted yes on the proposal to advance the merit pay framework, but neither is currently working with students in a classroom. Guilford County’s Leah Carper is on sabbatical as NC Teacher of the Year, and Madison Edwards works at NC Cyber Academy, a virtual charter school. The only current classroom teacher on the PEPSC Commission is Chatham Central High School’s Eric Patin. Patin did not attend the 9 AM meeting (presumably because as a practicing classroom teacher he was teaching his students).
Fortunately PEPSC did have plenty of feedback from current classroom teachers to consider, although it did not come up in the approximately 180 minutes of discussion that preceded the vote.
Attached to the PEPSC agenda on the State Board of Education website is a document containing 59 pages of feedback for PEPSC just from the month of October. Most of it is from teachers. Some crafty individual at DPI chose to position one of the only pro-merit pay messages at the top of this document, but nearly all of the feedback calls on the PEPSC Commission to reject the switch to merit pay:
The PEPSC Commission now has to await the green light from the State Board of Education and the General Assembly before moving the Pathways to Excellence proposal itself.
This proposal would make North Carolina the first state in the country to end the experience-based teacher salary schedule and move all teachers to a system of merit pay–and it’s getting closer to becoming a reality.
For some teachers, the opportunity for raises and career advancement would depend on students’ performance on standardized tests. But for the 60% of teachers who don’t have end of year tests tied to their subject, their “merit” would be measured in part by how their principal rates them on the North Carolina Educator Effectiveness System (NCEES).
Dr. Patrick Miller–recently retired Superintendent of Greene County Schools–is very familiar with the Pathways to Excellence proposal.
Dr. Miller earned his PhD from East Carolina University. His 2011 dissertation examined a 2007-2010 performance pay pilot program called The Collaborative Project which offered educators in five rural NC counties (including Greene) financial incentives based on their performances.
The dissertation arrives at a number of findings, but it was Dr. Miller’s conclusions on using principal evaluations for determining pay that stood out most to me.
Miller noted that the principal evaluation ratings were highly subjective and could be inflated for a variety of reasons, including impact on teacher morale and the desire to put more money in teachers’ pockets. He suggested evaluations should either be changed or eliminated entirely from performance incentive criteria.
🗣️ Miller’s argument is the same argument teachers have been making against the Pathways to Excellence performance measures since last spring. 🗣️
The hypocrisy is mind boggling.
The PEPSC Commission will meet on November 10 to consider approving the Pathways to Excellence merit pay proposal and sending it on to the State Board of Education for consideration.
Dr. Miller’s term as PEPSC Chair ended September 1, and the commission is now led by UNCW’s Dr. Van Dempsey.
A newly obtained Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) document provides an early glimpse of the Human Capital Roundtable’s secret effort to move all North Carolina teachers from an experience-based pay scale to merit pay.
The Department of Public Instruction’s Dr. Tom Tomberlin would be “manager” of the project and would “coordinate and execute the Roundtable’s plan to redesign North Carolina’s teacher licensure requirements and processes.”
Tomberlin’s responsibilities included drafting a preliminary proposal, gathering feedback from “state leaders and affected stakeholders” and then “finalizing the plan for PEPSC review.”
Dr. Tomberlin is DPI’s Director of Educator Recruitment and Support. He is a member of the Human Capital Roundtable, but he most definitely does NOT serve on the PEPSC Commission.
Dr. Patrick Miller, who was likely added to the Human Capital Roundtable because he chaired PEPSC and could provide the Roundtable with access to the commission, was designated a “helper” for Tomberlin.
According to the Roundtable Action Plan, Dr. Miller’s role was to “serve as the key shepherd of the redesign plan through the Commission and State Board of Education.”
The newly unearthed document flies in the face of the Human Capital Roundtable’s public narrative that its members are “simply following PEPSC’s work and support its foundational ideals.”
It’s important to understand that the Human Capital Roundtable, whose origins are murky at best, did not have any legal authority to recommend changes to licensure or teacher preparation in North Carolina.
The Roundtable Action Plan makes it clear that, from the very beginning, the Human Capital Roundtable intended to hijack PEPSC’s legislative mandate and get the commission to take up its proposal to scrap the experience-based pay scale which North Carolina and all the other 49 states use and replace it with a highly experimental merit pay model.
The Roundtable Action Plan was prepared and circulated by SREB among Human Capital Roundtable members for feedback.
At least one of them was a little queasy about it.
Tom West is a member of the Human Capital Roundtable who, in his day job, serves as VP for Government Relations and General Counsel for North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU).
In response to the draft action plan, West cautioned that much of what was proposed in the document might qualify as lobbying–which would legally require the Roundtable to register as a “lobbyist principal” under General Statute 120C:
The PEPSC Commission is scheduled to meet on November 10 and is expected to hold a vote on whether to approve the Human Capital Roundtable’s merit pay proposal and send it on to the State Board of Education for consideration.