Winston-Salem/Forsyth school board will not join lawsuit against vouchers

by Jordan Green


A divided Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board split over whether to join colleagues across the state as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s new voucher law with some members deeply ambivalent.

Elisabeth Motsinger, a Democrat who serves at large and the board’s most liberal member, expressed support for the lawsuit during the board’s meeting on Jan. 30.

“My reason for being opposed to vouchers is, of course, it’s using public dollars without accountability,” she said. “It’s in some ways implying that the reason there are problems in public schools is because our teachers aren’t good enough, our schools aren’t good enough. And I think that is not the case.”

Jill Tackabery and Marilyn Parker, two Republican members who represent District 2 comprising a suburban doughnut, joined Motsinger in opposing vouchers.

“When I have been elected and reelected, I took an oath to support the Winston- Salem/Forsyth County public schools; I took no such oath to private or parochial schools,” Tackabery said.

Irene May, a Republican who serves at large and represents the conservative end of the spectrum on the board, took a stand for vouchers.

“If we take the definition of what a ‘sound education’ is and take it away from the parents and put it in the hands of the legislature or policymakers we are doing a disservice to all of our kids,” she said.

That view was echoed by Jeannie Metcalf and Buddy Collins, Republicans who respectively serve at large and as represent District 2.

The voucher legislation was tucked into the state budget passed by the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, last year. The legislation established a program to provide vouchers of $4,200 per year beginning in the 2014-2015 school year to students whose family income does not exceed the threshold of the federal free and reduced lunch program. In future years, the program will broaden to students whose family income does not exceed 133 percent of the free and reduced lunch program.

Straddling the fence, board chair Jane Goins, also Republican who represents District 2, expressed misgivings about vouchers but said she is opposed to joining the lawsuit without explanation.

“I’m not in favor of doing any vouchers for schools that are not held to the same accountability that we are as public schools,” she said. “My second concern is that so many millions are going to be used in support of this despite the fact that our public school teachers did not receive a pay raise.”

John Davenport Jr., a Republican who represents District 1 comprising the urban core of Winston-Salem, said the vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships,” approved by the NC General Assembly are “directed towards the people who have the least amount of resources to make a choice,” adding that it is “about time they get the chance to take advantage of it.” Victor Johnson Jr., a Democrat who represents District 1, struck note of ambivalence and fatalism.

“Maybe some of these kids would do better if they had a chance to go some other place,” he said. “I don’t believe in vouchers but if we’re going to have vouchers for the rich then you need to have vouchers for the poor, too,” he said. “That’s taxpayers’ money, and we’re gonna have to let this thing ride out, or either get some more people down in Raleigh to change things. But as it is now we’re kind of stuck with something we can’t really do much about it.”

Wait — are there two separate voucher laws? This makes it sound like there are. And I’ve heard repeatedly that it isn’t enough money to make a difference for poor families and basically cuts costs minimally for wealthier families. I think you eed to explain this better earlier in the article (near the top).

The resolution was listed on the agenda as a discussion item, requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote to suspend the rules to bring it up for consideration. Davenport voted with Motsinger, Tackabery, Parker and Goins to suspend the rules to allow a vote, but Johnson joined May, Metcalf and Collins in voting to holding the line against a final vote. Motsinger said later that she doesn’t have the votes to get the board to sign on to the lawsuit.

The NC Education Assistance Authority, charged with administering the program, began accepting applications for voucher on Feb. 1, and will begin selecting students on March 1. The vouchers will transfer funds to private schools of the parents’ choice.

The NC Association of Educators, representing teachers and other school employees, along with the left-leaning NC Justice Center, sued the state on Dec. 11 seekinan injunction to declare the legislation unconstitutional and strike down the law.

VOUCHERS: Critics charge the law is unconstitutional

The NC School Boards Association followed suit five days later.

The suit filed by the NC School Boards Association contends that the voucher program requires the State Board of Education to reduce funding to each school district equivalent to its per-pupil spending allocation multiplied by the number of students who have transferred out of the public schools to take advantage of the voucher system.

“We don’t have any idea what that number is yet,” said Theo Helm, spokesman for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

In contrast to the reticence demonstrated by Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools officials, their counterparts in neighboring Guilford County Schools have estimated that the voucher program could siphon off about $500,000.

“How much money GCS will lose we don’t know the exact figure,” said Leonard Simpson, a district relations employee, citing a calculation made by Chief of Staff Nora Carr. “It depends on how many students apply for and receive vouchers, and we don’t know that. It also depends on how many of the private and parochial schools accept students with vouchers. The state estimates the program will cost $10 million in its first year. GCS represents about 5 percent of the budget for K-12 education. It’s plausible that it would cost GCS a half million on top of the cuts that have already been made.”

Both lawsuits contend that the voucher program violates the North Carolina Constitution. Under the constitution, the state’s public education system had three defining characteristics, the lawsuit filed by the school board association notes.

“First, it must be open to every child in the state without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, ability or disability,” the suit reads. “Second, it must be available to all students free of tuition. Third, it must be funded and operated at a level sufficient to provide every student the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.”

In contrast, the lawsuit argues, private schools are independent from the state and hold the freedom to select students and establish their own standards.

“The General Assembly’s recent decision to provide public funds to support those private schools raises substantial legal questions about whether that decision carried with it an obligation by the General Assembly, as the representative body for all North Carolinians, to assure that those public funds are expended for the good of all citizens without discrimination.”

Forty local school boards have signed on as plaintiffs, said Leanne Winner, director of government affairs for the NC School Boards Association, while 14 additional boards have passed resolutions to join. Winner said the Durham School Board represents the largest district among the plaintiffs.

Individual plaintiffs in the NC Association of Educators lawsuit include Rodney Ellis, president of the state association and a former employee of Winston- Salem/Forsyth County Schools; Margaret Arbuckle, retired executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance; and the Revs. Arnetta Beverly and Julie Peeples, who both pastor churches in Greensboro.

A handful of voucher opponents, including representatives of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, urged the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board to join the lawsuit on Jan. 30.

“I know the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District can and does educate the children that walk through our doors,” said Ronda Gordon, a social worker employed with the district. “We do not need a private school taking our funds from us where we are already struggling to make ends meet.

“I have personally and professionally seen where we have had children to go to charter schools, to go to private schools,” she added. “When they don’t fit the bill they are back at our door. And they are less better off than before they left us because the amount of time that they had missed in the classroom, you know that can’t be made up.”

Ann Petitjean, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, argued that private schools typically charge students additional fees for lunch and transportation, which are provided free to many public school students.

“Private schools are not under any obligation to educate children with special needs and can easily refuse to educate a child for any reason,” she said. “What if we took our share of the voucher money and put it into smaller class sizes, freedom to dictate the curriculum and a different kind of accountability that releases educators from high-stakes testing? Isn’t that a better way to spend our tax dollars? Wouldn’t that benefit all the students of Forsyth County?” !