Over the past few weeks, Governor Roy Cooper has continued to sound the alarm on dangerous Republican plans that would gut funding for public education and expand private school vouchers so anyone - even a millionaire - can get taxpayer money for their children's private school tuition.
"It's bad when taxpayer dollars are spent on private schools that have no accountability but it's even worse when public schools are being dramatically short changed at the same time,"
said Governor Cooper. "Instead of thousands of dollars sent to millionaires to keep their kids in private schools, let's pay our teachers what they deserve and invest in our public schools."
Recently, multiple news stories have raised questions about possible misconduct and criminal activity at private schools that participate in the voucher program. In Johnston County, a private school was ordered to return over $37,000 in voucher funding that it had received for students who had not attended or withdrawn from the school. The school was also deemed ineligible from receiving any further voucher funding for students by the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA). The state also halted distribution of about $300,000 that would have gone to the private school for the spring 2023 semester and referred the matter to the State Bureau of Investigation for further review.
In Mecklenburg County, a reporter set out to visit a private school that received more vouchers than enrolled students but could not locate the school itself and discovered numerous different addresses listed in the state's private school directory and online. SEAA is now looking into the institution as well.
Coverage has highlighted a recent analysis that found over 60 instances where private schools across the state received voucher funding for more students than the total number of students that were reportedly enrolled at the school. To be eligible to receive voucher funding, a private school must be registered with the Department of Administration's Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE). However, reporting requirements for private schools only include a responsibility to notify DNPE when they open and close, weakening the ability to hold these institutions accountable as they receive taxpayer dollars.
Republican legislators who are actively championing this voucher expansion plan that would pour billions of dollars into these private institutions have so far refused to comment on these instances of possible misconduct or criminal activity.
Rather than using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools that can choose who they accept and are unaccountable to the public, legislators should invest in North Carolina's future by fully funding public schools and setting up every student for success.
The Governor is calling on North Carolinians to visit governor.nc.gov to learn more and contact their legislators to ask them to protect public schools. Learn more about North Carolina's public education emergency.
Read more about potential misconduct and criminal activity within the unaccountable private school voucher program:
N&O: Triangle private school faces possible investigation after being suspended from vouchers
T. Keung Hui - June 27, 2023
A Johnston County private school is facing a potential criminal investigation over the hundreds of thousands of dollars it has received in state voucher funding from the Opportunity Scholarship program.
The Mitchener University Academy in Selma was suspended from receiving Opportunity Scholarship funds in early 2023, according to Mary Shuping, director of government and external affairs for the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.
"The school was required to refund a number of scholarships paid earlier in the year, and we have turned that matter over to the State Bureau of Investigation,"
Shuping said in an email Monday.
Shuping did not say the specific reasons why Mitchener was suspended from the Opportunity Scholarship program.
But the school was among those cited in a recent N.C. Justice Center analysis of whether some private schools received voucher money for students it wasn't actually educating.
Schools receiving vouchers for non-existent students?
The Justice Center analysis lists 62 times where private schools received more vouchers from the Opportunity Scholarship program than for students they reported having.
MItchener's suspension predates the release of the report by Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the Education & Law Project at the N.C. Justice Center
If the enrollment figures are accurate, the left-leaning policy group says this represents approximately $2.3 million of fraudulent payments to these schools across the state.
"At the end of the day, it's really incumbent on the voucher proponents to show that this voucher program is not being abused and is not a huge avenue for fraud,"
Nordstrom said in an interview Monday.
Discrepancy in state data
The Opportunity Scholarship program was initially promoted in 2014 as a way to help low-income students to escape failing schools by receiving funding to help pay the cost for attending a private school.
For the 2022-23 school year, $133.8 million was awarded to 25,547 students at 544 private schools.
Nordstrom compared the enrollment data reported annually to the state Division of Non-Public Education with the number of voucher recipients at each school from the Education Assistance Authority.
In some cases, Nordstrom found that the discrepancy was only a few students. But in other cases, schools reported dozens more voucher recipients than total students.
School suspended from voucher program
For the 2021-22 school year, Mitchener received $443,100 in state funding for 149 voucher recipients. But the school, about 30 miles east of Raleigh, reported only having 72 students to the state Division of Non-Public Education.
After receiving information from a parent, Shuping said the agency determined that the school had violated statutory requirements and program rules related to the certification and endorsement processes. She said that the school had also violated the student withdrawal policy.
She said that the agency stopped approximately $300,000 in funds from being distributed for the spring semester as well as requiring the return of $37,319 from the fall semester.
sp; The school received $316,725 in voucher funding in the 2022-23 school year.
Should NC expand voucher program?
In addition to schools reporting more voucher recipients than students, Nordstrom's analysis found some schools were collecting voucher money even after they stopped reporting enrollment to the state Division of Non-Public Education. He said this brings up the question of whether schools received voucher funding after they closed.
The Division of Non-Public Education is required by statute to notify the Education Assistance Authority within five business days of a school becoming ineligible to operate, including school closures.
The problem, Nordstrom said, is not all private schools are the same. He said some private schools are fly-by-night operations in strip malls and basements of homes that are taking advantage of the "Wild West"
environment for the voucher program.
"This is part and parcel of being the least regulated voucher program in the nation,"
Nordstrom said. "The potential for fraud is going up if you triple the size of the voucher program."
Nordstrom said the analysis shows why GOP lawmakers should pause plans to expand the voucher program,
The state House has already passed legislation that would open the Opportunity Scholarship program to any family, regardless of income level. The Senate would also increase voucher funding, raising it eventually to have more than $500 million a year.
WFAE: Charlotte private school had more vouchers than students. And where's the building?
Ann Doss Helms - June 27, 2023
Kristopher Nordstrom of the North Carolina Justice Center is no fan of North Carolina's school vouchers. So when the General Assembly proposed expanding the Opportunity Scholarship program and removing the income cap, Nordstrom dived into data to make a point.
"Voucher schools ... aren't the high-quality exclusive private schools that people think,"
Nordstrom told me last week. "They are a lot of times fly-by-night schools."
By that he means very small schools where most students are subsidized with taxpayer money - and which often don't stay open long. He set out to document that by pulling enrollment numbers from the state's private school directory and comparing that data with the number of scholarship recipients listed by the agency that distributes the money.
To his surprise, he found several schools where the number of voucher recipients exceeded total enrollment. Sometimes it was by one or two students, which could be explained by normal fluctuation. But he also found examples such as Mitchener University Academy, in a small town about 30 miles southeast of Raleigh, that reportedly had 149 voucher recipients in 2021-22 while reporting total enrollment of 72 students.
"(T)he existing program lacks adequate oversight and is potentially riven with fraud,"
Mitchener University Academy, which is named after founder Moses Mitchener, received just over $443,000 in tax money in 2021-22. Mitchener hasn't responded to my query about enrollment and scholarships.
Nordstrom doesn't claim those discrepancies prove fraud. But state legislation that appears headed for approval dramatically increases voucher spending - from about $95 million for the school year that just ended to more than $500 million by 2031. Nordstrom says lawmakers who support that bill should prove they're not handing out money in a process that's open to fraud and error.
State agency responds
Nordstrom says he sent his findings to the State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the scholarships, and the state's Division of Non-Public Education, which compiles the private school directory.
The school "was suspended from receiving scholarship funds in early 2023 and deemed ineligible by SEAA to participate in the K12 Scholarship Programs in March, 2023,"
Mary Shuping, director of government and external affairs, said in an email. "Therefore, the school did not receive any funds for students in the spring 2023 semester. The school was required to refund a number of scholarships paid earlier in the year, and we have turned that matter over to the State Bureau of Investigation."
Where's the school?
The biggest voucher-enrollment gap in Mecklenburg County is at Teaching Achieving Students Academy, which reported having 13 students in 2021-22 but was listed as having 22 scholarship recipients, bringing the school $92,400 from the state.
After sending an email to Headmistress Fanisha Cowan and calling a phone number with a full voicemail box, I set out Friday to find the school. If nothing else, the quest illustrated Nordstrom's point about the transience of some small private schools.
A Google search didn't turn up the school's website, but there are listings from Charlotte Parent and Niche that give the address as 7829 Old Concord Road in northeast Charlotte. My Google Maps app showed me the same address ... which is a building at the back of Sugar Creek Charter School's campus. Sugar Creek Superintendent Cheryl Turner says if a private school was ever there it would have been before 2014.
The 2021-22 private school directory lists the address as 4400 Tantilla Circle, a duplex off W.T. Harris Boulevard in east Charlotte that has no signs indicating it's a school. The state's "current private schools"
list says the physical address is 1000 Anderson St., rooms B5 and B7. That's the old Plaza School, owned but no longer operated by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. There's nothing there to signal it houses a private school, and CMS says it has not leased space to Teaching Achieving Students Academy.
The website, which I found only after Googling Cowan's name, says the school is "now enrolling 2022-23,"
which likely indicates the school won't open in August. During this past year, it was listed as having nine voucher students (dollar totals aren't posted).
After the newsletter came out, someone tweeted me a link to a Facebook page listing Fanisha Cowan as Fanisha Locke. That led to a Facebook page for TAS Academy that listed another address: 2723 N. Graham St. That's the site of Charlotte Leadership Academy, a private school that also receives vouchers. One of the operators of that school said TAS Academy is not located there.
Shuping, of the SEAA, said Monday evening that her agency is now looking into Teaching Achieving Students Academy.
What about legislators?
I've also asked Sen. Michael Lee and Rep. Tricia Cotham, who spoke at the rollout of the voucher expansion, to comment on Nordstrom's report and discuss any safeguards against fraud. So far my calls and emails have gotten no response.
The other issue raised in the NC Justice Center Report is whether certain schools closed while they were receiving Opportunity Scholarship funds. G.S. 115C-562.4(a) states that DNPE is to notify SEAA if any school is ineligible to receive scholarship funds within five business days. I am not sure how SEAA handles a situation where they receive notice that a school is no longer eligible, but I can reach out to them to ask, if you'd like."
WRAL: NC removes Johnston County private school from voucher program, refers to SBI for investigation
Emily Walkenhorst - June 27, 2023
A Johnston County private school that received $316,725 in state funds this year has been referred to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation after being found ineligible for further state funding.
The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority found Mitchener University Academy in Selma ineligible to receive the state's private school voucher, called an Opportunity Scholarship.
The vouchers are paid directly to the school by the state on behalf of eligible lower-income families.
The agency found the school ineligible for funds in March and ordered the repayment of "a number of scholarships,"
said Mary Shuping, the agency's director of government and external affairs. It's unclear if the school has paid back those scholarships.
The school has been removed from the program at the same time the Opportunity Scholarship program is poised to nearly triple in size, if legislation passes, costing more than $400 million two years from now. Critics have questioned how much oversight the state conducts over the program.
The State Bureau of Investigations has not yet confirmed whether it is investigating the school.
The Authority did not explain why the school was found to be ineligible, and the school's director, Moses Mitchener, did not respond to an email asking why.
The school is among 26 private schools in which the number of Opportunity Scholarships awarded exceeded the number of students the schools reported enrolling during the 2021-22 school year, according to an analysis first published by the North Carolina Justice Center and confirmed by a WRAL News analysis.
The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority reported disbursing 149 Opportunity Scholarships worth $443,100 to Mitchener University Academy during the 2021-22 school year. That fall, the school reported 72 enrolled students to the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education.
WRAL News found a number of private schools with disproportionate enrollment of Opportunity Scholarship students. During the 2021-22 school year, 17.8% of private school students had an Opportunity Scholarship. But state data show Opportunity Scholarship recipients made up more than 75% of the student body at 70 private schools that year, and more than 50% of the student body at 149 private schools.
Kris Nordstrom, education policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center, found 62 instances since 2018 in which a private school reported enrolling fewer students than the NCSEAA reported disbursing Opportunity Scholarships for. Nordstrom is a vocal voucher opponent and suspected many schools were unstable, opening and closing quickly, and wanted to look at some data to find out more. That's when he noticed the differences in the scholarships and enrollment.
"It just goes to show it's the Wild West and someone needs to get a handle on this before we start spending half a billion a year on it,"
Bills in the House and Senate, widely favored and pushed by Republicans, would expand the Opportunity Scholarship program from a $133 million program serving lower-income families this school year into a more than half a billion-dollar program serving families of all incomes by the end of the decade. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has been campaigning across the state against the bills.
WRAL News has sought comment from bill sponsors Rep. Tricia Cotham, R-Mecklenburg, and Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover.
Mitchener University Academy received $149,520 during the 2020-21 school year for 43 Opportunity Scholarships, despite reporting only 34 students enrolled. It received $59,010 during the 2019-20 school year for 20 Opportunity Scholarships, while it reported 20 total students enrolled.
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