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NC’s school voucher program pays for a lot of religious education

Intellicor Academy, an Islamic school in east Charlotte, is Mecklenburg County's largest Opportunity Scholarship recipient.
Ann Doss Helms
Intellicor Academy, an Islamic school in east Charlotte, is Mecklenburg County's largest Opportunity Scholarship recipient.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

One hazard of covering a beat for a couple of decades is the “been there, done that” syndrome. When North Carolina launched its Opportunity Scholarship program, I did stories about the preponderance of religious schools among the voucher recipients. And I was amazed to see how small some of the private schools receiving public money are — sometimes fewer than 10 students.

Diving back into coverage of the General Assembly’s proposed expansion and recent questions about financial oversight of the program prompted me to put together an overview of the program. One of the things I touch on is the prevalence of religious schools — mostly Christian, but also some Islamic schools — among the largest scholarship recipients.

Last year Grace Christian School in Sanford topped the list, with 371 voucher students and almost $2.3 million in public money. Its website touts “academic excellence from a biblical worldview.” Mecklenburg County’s top recipient was Intellicor International Academy, an Islamic school on the grounds of the Muslim Education Center in east Charlotte. It got almost $1.3 million for 214 students.

Other big recipients in the region include Shining Light Baptist Academy in Monroe (228 students, $1.3 million), Concord Academy in Cabarrus County (219 students, $1.3 million), Hickory Grove Christian School in Charlotte (180 students, $1.1 million), Community Christian Academy in Bessemer City (179 students, $618,445) and North Hills Christian School in Salisbury (176 students, $1.1 million).

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You may notice the number of scholarship students isn’t directly proportional to the money taken in. That’s because individual scholarship payments can be shaped by family income and tuition charged at each school. And if students attend only one semester, the school only gets paid for half a year.

Critics say it’s wrong for taxpayers to subsidize religious education, especially if it comes at the expense of academic rigor. While some religious schools are known for strong academics, a 2018 League of Women Voters study found a majority of the voucher-subsidized religious schools taught “a literal biblical worldview” that’s not compatible with the state curriculum. Supporters say that’s for a parent to decide. I touch on the “separation of church and state” issue in the overview — or check out this excellent explanatory piece by WRAL’s Emily Walkenhorst.

Are tiny private schools reliable?

Mitchener University Academy.
Google Maps
Mitchener University Academy.

I also remember being astonished at finding private schools listed in the state’s directory with enrollment of 10 or 20 students, smaller than most individual classrooms. Critics such as Kristopher Nordstrom, of the North Carolina Justice Center, and Charlotte charter school operator Cheryl Turner say tiny private schools that rely heavily on voucher money are unstable at best — both used the term "fly-by-night schools" — and at worst may signal someone gaming the system.

You can catch up here on last week’s news related to discrepancies Nordstrom flagged. The state revealed that Mitchener University Academy, a K-12 private school outside Raleigh that caters to low-income and disabled students, was forced to return voucher money after the state followed up on information from a parent and discovered payments for students who were not enrolled. According to state records, the school started getting Opportunity Scholarship money in 2019 and collected $968,355 over four years. School founder Moses Mitchener never responded to my queries, but he told the News & Observer’s T. Keung Hui that the school will operate without public money as an online high school for the coming year.

At the end of last week it remained unclear whether Teaching Achieving Students Academy in Charlotte has a physical location or will open in August. State records show the school has participated in the voucher program since its inception in 2014, collecting a total of $440,814 as the number of participating students grew. In 2021-22 the state reported paying scholarships for 22 students, while the state’s private-school directory listed total enrollment of 13. After reporting on my unsuccessful attempts to find the school at four possible addresses, I got a call Wednesday from founder Fanisha Cowan (also listed on Facebook as Fanisha Locke). But after a prolonged round of phone tag, I never got her to answer any questions. Officials from the state agency that distributes the money say they’re “still doing our due diligence in checking on Teaching Achieving Students Academy.”

What strikes me most is how extraordinarily difficult it would be to run an effective school with a handful of students and the shoestring budget the vouchers would provide. Big districts with millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid offer signing bonuses and other perks, and still can’t hire enough qualified teachers. Charter schools struggle to find buildings and build a successful academic program, even with a much larger public budget. I’m not sure how a tiny school pays rent and recruits faculty. Critics would say taxpayers are almost certainly footing the bill for a substandard education. Backers would say that illustrates how desperately parents want alternatives to public schools.

The middle school magnet challenge for CMS

When I asked Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Magnet Director Walter Hall about the biggest challenge for his program, he said it’s figuring out how to attract students to middle schools. That’s the point at which CMS sees the biggest loss of students to charter and private schools, he said — with many returning for high school.

Hall calls it “the messy middle — we don’t have the variety of choices and themes and magnet schools that we do in elementary school and high school.”

One attempt to fix that involves replacing the leadership magnet programs at Quail Hollow and Eastway middle schools. In 2024-25 Quail Hollow will become an International Baccalaureate magnet, and the board voted last week to convert Eastway to a Cambridge magnet that year as well.

A thriving magnet comes from a combination of the program, the location and the school’s reputation. The current leadership theme starts with Myers Park and Elizabeth Traditional elementary schools, where families can opt into a program built around Stephen Covey’s habits of effective people. Those seats fill easily but I’d hazard a guess that families are more drawn to schools in two of Charlotte’s most prestigious close-in neighborhoods than by the theme.

At Quail Hollow in south Charlotte and Eastway in east Charlotte, CMS hopes to get traction drawing families to schools with higher poverty levels by switching to better-known international programs. Eastway’s new magnet will feed into a new Cambridge magnet at Garinger High School.

There’s a lot more to dig into as CMS approaches a sweeping review of student assignment and magnets. I’ve gotten great comments and questions since writing about this a couple of weeks ago, and more stories are coming.

It’s CMS campaign season — again

Filing for the three at-large seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board begins Friday. Incumbent Jennifer De La Jara has said she won’t seek a second term. Lenora Shipp says she will. And board Chair Elyse Dashew, who has served two terms, says she’s not ready to declare her intentions.

If it seems like we just had a CMS board election, we did. They’re normally every two years, but the district race was delayed to get updated Census data. As you might recall, five of the six seats went to newcomers last November — and the district also has a new superintendent. So this may be the biggest infusion of fresh perspectives the district has seen in quite some time.

Education bills go to Gov. Cooper

North Carolina lawmakers are sending at least three education-related bills to Gov. Roy Cooper after passage last week. House Bill 618 revamps the system for approving and monitoring charter schools, House Bill 605 requires the creation of school threat assessment teams and Senate Bill 49 is a “parents’ bill of rights” that increases family control over education.

The threat assessment bill drew strong bipartisan support, while the parental rights bill is expected to draw a veto from the Democratic governor. But with the Republican supermajority’s ability to override a veto, expect all three to become law.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.