Gary D. Robertson
RALEIGH, N.C. - Charlonda Brown, a single mother in Goldsboro, North Carolina, says she only wants for her boys what any parent wants: the best possible education.
With 4-year-old son Julian diagnosed with Erb's palsy, leaving him with only one working arm, Brown already pays more than $700 out-of-pocket every two weeks for his physical therapy. Unhappy with local public school options, she'll gladly accept state help toward paying for private school and services if it's awarded to them next year.
North Carolina has three taxpayer-funded school-choice initiatives, all created by the Republican-controlled General Assembly since 2013, and Julian could benefit from all three. None of the money — up to $21,200 annually — would go to waste, his mom said.
"I'm just trying to level the playing field for him," said Brown, whose 14-year-old son already gets a public tuition scholarship for low-income students.
More than 30 states now offer some assistance for parents to send their children to private or religious schools or to pay for outside services. Wisconsin, Indiana and Florida are among the leaders, and President Donald Trump's administration is seeking to expand vouchers. But North Carolina, where Democrats prevented such programs for decades, has quickly jumped near the head of the class.
"I wouldn't say that North Carolina is a pioneer but it's also, I would say, ahead of the curve," said Jason Bedrick, policy director at EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group.
There's deep division over whether that's a good thing.
The GOP legislature last summer created the "Personal Education Savings Account" program, so starting next fall parents of 300 children with autism, brain injury and other disabilities could receive up to $9,000 a year. The money goes on a debit card to the parent to pay for private-school tuition, educational therapies or certain equipment.
Nearly 7,000 students benefited last year from North Carolina's first two programs: grants for special needs children and "Opportunity Scholarships" for children from low-income families. Under current law, close to 35,000 of the scholarships would be awarded annually by 2027.
Program opponents say the savings accounts take money from public schools that districts can't afford to lose. Little time was offered for legislative debate about the savings accounts this year. There's no published study yet comparing academic outcomes for students in the North Carolina programs compared to public school students.
"There's no accountability to the taxpayers that these programs are actually producing what they're supposed to," said Leanne Winner with the North Carolina School Boards Association. "I don't know of another state that has put these many options, programs on the books as quickly as North Carolina has."
The savings accounts' chief legislative sponsor says the likelihood of a child receiving money from all three programs is low. Still, Republican Sen. Michael Lee of Wilmington says the new accounts are designed so children with severe disabilities can obtain more funds to cover expensive services.
Lee, who also has a son with special needs, said it's difficult for every public school or district to help every child with disabilities across the severity spectrum. He's hopeful the accounts will encourage new service providers in non-metropolitan areas help more children become productive adults.
"Getting them to reach their potential — whatever that means — is so important, and I think we as a state have the obligation from an education perspective to do that," Lee said.
Parents frustrated about their children's experiences in public schools and legislators seeking to trim spending find the accounts attractive, said Sam Abrams, a Columbia University professor. But such spending increases the risk that profit-minded private providers will cut corners educating a child, he said.
"You are trusting the individual providers that they're doing what they say they are going to do," said Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.
Five other states also have passed laws creating savings accounts. Lee said North Carolina learned from missteps of other programs, such as Arizona's, blamed for lax oversight and improper spending of funds by parents before improvements were made.
Further choice expansion in North Carolina could stop if Democrats regain General Assembly control. The North Carolina Association of Educators and its Democratic ally, new Gov. Roy Cooper, oppose education vouchers, but legislators overrode his veto of the budget containing the savings accounts and increased Opportunity Scholarship money.
It will be difficult to eradicate the programs, which have found support among some black Democrats who want to give constituents an alternative to chronically failing public schools. Demand for the two current programs outstrips available money. More than 200 people attended savings account informational meetings in November.
"This is an extension of public education," said Darrell Allison with Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which lobbied to create all three programs. "We're really tapping into a demand here."