No Opportunity Scholarship?

Strings AttachedBradford Academy, along with several other independent private schools in North Carolina, have opted out of the voluntary participation in the state’s OPPORTUNITY SCHOLARSHIP program.  In essence, the state has said, “Here is some money to help out some needy families.”  We replied, “No thanks.”  Why?

Several years ago I was contacted by an organization called Parents For Educational Freedom (PEFNC).  It is a great organization that is lobbying for more educational opportunities for children and families.  I was able to speak with the president of PEFNC, attend  meetings with state legislators, and spoke personally with Speaker of the House Paul Stam.  The item of discussion was a proposed bill that would support school choice.  The program as it was originally proposed would have allowed corporations in North Carolina to make a donation to a non-governmental charitable organization (NGO’s, like Bradford’s operating board) that would in turn distribute the funds to needy families for tuition to attend a private school.  The corporations would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.  It was quite an incentive.  What business would not want to give their tax dollars directly to a school to help out the children?  I thought it was a great idea particularly because there was so little government involvement and because a similar program had been tremendously successful in Florida.  Unfortunately, the bill received several revisions before it was eventually passed.

The final iteration of the bill and the one that passed had many significant changes. First, there are now no corporate donations because the money originates as a line item in the state budget.  The state now directly oversees the money.  Instead of the funds being distributed by non-governmental organizations the program is administered by a state agency called the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.   Now the state directly oversees the distribution of the money.  Additionally, the schools who receive the funds need to hire a certified CPA to run an annual audit, submit standardized test scores, and submit annual written reports of the academic progress of the scholarship students.  Of course, all of these accountability measures are reasonable; however, government accountability often means government meddling.   I, and every other taxpayer, should expect there to be oversight when tax funds are distributed. However, when academic measures are established, curriculum will soon be mandated.  When the government pays the bill or buys the product, they will determine the quality of the product.  How are they doing now? So the absurdity is revealed when we consider that the system that families are trying to leave is essentially the same system that will be overseeing the program that is supposed to help those students.  In other words,  the scholarship program is intended to help poor families escape from a failing  government school, but it is that same government who will provide oversight of the PRIVATE independent school.  I understand why it has to happen, but I don’t like it, nor do I want to get entangled in it.

While I believe that there are many good people in our state and local government, I also know that things change, elections happen, and bureaucratic encroachment expands and rarely shrinks.  Since moving to the United States, I have been a fan of Ronald Reagan who said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”  I think he was onto something.  I have worked in publicly-funded alternative schools and saw first-hand the gradual creeping increase of regulations. To underscore this concern we ought to consider the events of this nation over the last few years.  For example consider the following:

  • Hobby Lobby healthcare mandate
  • Elaine Photography in New Mexico
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado
  • Sweetcakes bakery in Oregon
  • Chick-fil-A in Denver
  • Removal of Christian chaplains in Kentucky prisons
  • Little Sisters of the Poor (Roman Catholic nuns) required to violate conscience due to AHCA.
  • The list could continue, but if you are watching current events you are already familiar with the situation.
  • Our current president vowed in 2008 to uphold former President Bush’s faith-based initiative BUT prohibit religiously-based charities that received government funds from discriminating based on religious beliefs in hiring practices OR proselytizing those they serve. Although he has not kept that promise, he recently received a petition to act (See here.)
  • During the oral arguments for this summer’s Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, the Chief Justice asked the Solicitor General if a ruling would affect issues related to Christian convictions at Christian schools. The reply was evasive and amounted to whether states would be accommodating.  When Justice Alito asked if hiring decisions could be made based on religious convictions (regarding same-sex marriage) at Christian schools, the Solicitor General replied, “It is going to be an issue.”    Stop and think about this situation.  The top lawyer, appointed to represent the United States said that it would be an issue if a CHRISTIAN INSTITUTION decided to uphold Biblical convictions and expectations of behavior for their teachers in contradiction to the Court’s ruling.  Nothing directly related has happened yet, but shouldn’t we be concerned?

All this is to say that bringing the school closer to the government through participation in its programs is a bad idea at this time.  I feel sorry for those schools who decided to enroll students last year in the program and then had to suffer through the legal process before the money was released.  I believe those schools will one day have to make a decision between Biblical principles or the money.  Sadly, I fear that there will be few that will be able to say no to the money after years of depending on that revenue.  I believe it would be much better for the Christian community, families, extended families, and interested parties to band together around shared values and invest in the schools that will promote those values.

I often hear political conservatives talk about reducing government, lowering taxes, and promoting personal responsibility.  Unfortunately,  I have also seen some who appear to change their position if a program benefits them.   If we want to be people of conviction there will be a cost.  If we really want to live free, we are going to have to take responsibility for the education of our children.  We have decided to do that, and I am very thankful that you, our parents, have decided to do that as well.

We are committed to help families meet their educational desires, but I don’t want to spend my time filling out paper work and meeting some regulator’s standard of performance.  I want to spend my time and our teachers’ time filling our young scholars’ lives with knowledge and wisdom.  The only standard I want to serve is Biblical and the expectations I want to meet are yours.  This is the true beauty of the free market. It is said that if you take the king’s coin you become the king’s man.  The only King I want to serve owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:10) and is sufficient to meet every need (Phil. 4:19).

Last year the Opportunity Scholarship was blocked by a lower court.  That judge ruled that, “the voucher program is problematic because private schools can discriminate in their admissions and don’t have the same curriculum and teacher certification standards as public schools.” ( See report here.)  Thankfully that ruling was overturned in the North Carolina Supreme Court.  It is a victory, but a tentative one at best. Since that ruling, events on the national level have provided sufficient reason for concern.  While many will experience immediate benefit  from the program, I hope those schools that receive the funds have the spiritual backbone and financial foundation to stand up to regulatory pressures and the coming threat of the loss of those funds.  I’d rather not get into that situation.  Pray for us.

Deciding not to participate in the Scholarship Program was hard but we believe it was the right decision.  In God’s providence, we have been able to fund our own scholarship program in the past.  Please pray with us that we would be able to continue to serve all kinds of families in different situations.  The Lord has been kind to us and we pray that He would supply for and prosper us in these dark days.

Peace and grace.