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What we know — and don’t — about discrepancies in NC school voucher program

 Mitchener University Academy.
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Mitchener University Academy.

The recent publication of a North Carolina Justice Center report on private schools that appear to have received more taxpayer-funded vouchers than they have students has prompted state officials to offer some explanation — and disclose that one school paid the state back tens of thousands of dollars for vouchers it shouldn't have received.

Kristopher Nordstrom, the Justice Center analyst who compiled the data, says he got no response when he shared his findings with state officials in mid-June. But inquiries from WFAE produced an acknowledgment that one private school in the Raleigh area has been removed from the Opportunity Scholarship program and referred to the State Bureau of Investigation. The state says it’s also checking into a Charlotte school that received more vouchers than listed students and appears to have no fixed location.

The questions arose as state lawmakers move toward a dramatic expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides public money to pay private school tuition. The state imposes few requirements on private schools that get the money. Advocates say parent choice is the ultimate measure of accountability.

The left-leaning Justice Center, based in Raleigh, is among several organizations that oppose the expansion. Critics say the proposed changes siphon money from public schools and offer public subsidies to wealthy families who can afford to pay private school tuition.

Here’s what we know and don’t know so far:

Where's the school?
WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms spoke with Morning Edition host Marshall Terry about schools that appear to receive more vouchers than they have students, including one Charlotte school she couldn't find despite checking four addresses.
Mitchener University Academy.

Fraud or data glitch?

Nordstrom identified 62 instances in which Opportunity Scholarship tallies, which are generated by one state agency, showed more recipients than the total school enrollment listed in private-school directories — which are produced by a different agency.

The State Education Assistance Authority, created to administer the vouchers, said Monday that many of the apparent discrepancies come from pulling data from two agencies that use different methods. The enrollment reports capture one point in time, while voucher tallies are updated throughout the year, the authority says.

But Mary Shuping, a lawyer who is the authority’s director of external and government affairs, acknowledged that at least one case was not just a glitch.

“(O)ne school identified in the Justice Center analysis, Mitchener University Academy, was suspended from receiving scholarship funds in early 2023 and deemed ineligible by SEAA to participate in the K12 Scholarship Programs in March, 2023,” she wrote in an email to WFAE. “ 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.”

On Tuesday evening, Shuping said a parent’s tip led to the discovery of problems at the school in Johnston County, about 35 miles southeast of Raleigh.

“SEAA investigated and determined that Mitchener University Academy in Selma had violated statutory requirements and program rules related to the certification and endorsement processes, as well as the Student Withdrawal Policy,” she wrote. “SEAA stopped approximately $300,000 in Opportunity Scholarship funds from being disbursed to the school for the spring 2023 semester and required the school to return an additional $37,319 in scholarship funds that had been disbursed in the fall 2022 semester for students who had not attended or who had withdrawn from the school during the 2022-23 school year, which the school did.”

Eligibility process

In response to WFAE’s queries, the authority also released a two-page explanation of how families and schools become eligible for Opportunity Scholarships.

Private schools that want to receive public money must register with the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education and sign a participation agreement with the SEAA. That agreement requires a criminal history check for the top decision-maker in the private school. A financial review is also required if the school has 70 or more scholarship recipients.

Parents must apply for scholarships on behalf of their children. If they meet eligibility requirements — which currently include income caps — they can designate an approved private school to receive the payments.

Elusive Charlotte school

WFAE attempted to contact Teaching Achieving Students Academy, a Charlotte religious school with apparent discrepancies between enrollment and vouchers. Four Charlotte addresses listed on state records or online sources led to buildings that do not house the school, and the head of school has not responded to phone calls, an email and a Facebook message. The school’s website, which does not list an address, promotes enrollment for the school year that just ended.

The academy is listed as having nine scholarship recipients for 2022-23, the most recent year listed, and is in the state’s 2022-23 list of active private schools. Nothing has been published for 2023-24.

In response to WFAE’s query, Shuping said the state authority is looking into the academy’s status.

Legislator reaction

State Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) spoke at an April press conference promoting expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program. Neither has responded to calls and emails seeking comment on the Justice Center report and whether additional measures are needed to prevent fraud and error.

Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), who co-chairs the House Education Committee, said his office has requested information about the discrepancies from legislative staff. He has not said whether he thinks changes are needed.

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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.