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Charlotte private school had more vouchers than students. And where's the building?

This closed CMS school is at one of the addresses listed for a private school that apparently received more public scholarships than it had students.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
This closed CMS school is at one of the addresses listed for a private school that apparently received more public scholarships than it had students.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter on Monday. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here. It has been updated to include new developments.

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,” Nordstrom wrote.

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.

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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. He got no response, and published his report quickly because, he says, he wanted to slow the rush to expand the program.

WFAE sent queries last week, and on Monday evening the SEAA responded to say that Mitchener University Academy has been declared ineligible for vouchers and referred to the State Bureau of Investigation.

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.”

She did not say what led to the measures taken against Mitchener University Academy, which apparently happened before Nordstrom’s report.

Shuping also sent a two-page reportdetailing how the agency monitors schools and family applications. She says the difference between enrollment and scholarship totals come from the two agencies using different methods. “Because DNPE data is a point in time and SEAA data is collected over the entire year, we would not expect these two sources to be identical,” Shuping wrote. (Reporting for the directory is voluntary, and I’ve found in the past that the information is not always reliable.)

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.

State Rep. John Torbett, who co-chairs the House Education Committee, has filed a request for information from the legislative fiscal staff, according to his wife and legislative assistant Viddia Torbett.

The response from fiscal staff: “We can confirm that there are discrepancies between the NCSEAA data for opportunity scholarships and the data on private school enrollment posted to by the Division of Nonpublic Education (DNPE). DNPE posts numbers that are self-reported by the private schools, and they note on their website that "total enrollment shown here may not be current." Nothing in statute requires private schools to report their enrollment to DNPE or to update their enrollment figures. They are only required to report whether they have opened or closed (see G.S. 116C-39).

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.”

Viddia Torbett said her office has asked for more information.

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.