Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Editorial: Embezzlement charge at Fayetteville private school exposes risks of voucher abuse

In the last three school years, North Carolina taxpayers have spent nearly $859,000 to educate elementary and high school students at Trinity School in Fayetteville. The school is the top recipient of the state’s private school vouchers.
Just last week Heath Vandevender, athletic director at the school and vice president of the Truth Outreach Center Inc., was arrested and accused of embezzling nearly $400,000 in employee tax withholdings at the private school.
Vandevender, who was released on $50,000 bond, continues to coach the boys’ basketball team and is still employed by the school, according to his father, Rev. Dennis Vandevender, the leader of Trinity Christian School.
So, the state’s biggest recipient of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers is accused of failing to pay nearly a half-million dollars in required state taxes.
In the three years since the state-funded vouchers have been offered, schools have quickly caught on to the “opportunity of vouchers. The number of schools participating has grown from 224 when launched to 349 this current school year.
And what kind of oversight does North Carolina have to make sure schools receiving vouchers are spending taxpayer money properly? Next to none.
For politicians who have made a mantra out of “running government like a business,” the opportunity school vouchers is a scheme that might delight Bernie Madoff.
While schools that receive more than $300,000 in vouchers are required by state law to conduct an audit, incredibly they don’t have to reveal or share the contents of that audit. And while the schools are required to administer a “nationally standardized test” to students annually, it is up to the schools to select the test – and there is no requirement they be the same, or similar to those used to measure the progress of students in North Carolina public schools.
This latest accusation of administrative and financial abuse at Trinity School is a stark reminder that our lawmakers should have reasonable rules and regulations in place to assure taxpayers that their money is being spent wisely.
Many of the schools have rules and policies imposing discrimination, excluding some students based on their faith, if their parents are gay, or whether students might be LGBT. These policies shouldn't be supported with state tax dollars.
Further, these schools that are so anxious to accept the state funding should be expected to show how the money was spent and whether the resulting education was worth it.
This school year the state’s paid out more than $12 million to support 5,432 students at 349 private schools. Within 10 years, the legislature has mandated the program grow to $13 .8 million for support of 32,105 students.
North Carolina taxpayers should know how their tax dollars are being spent – and not left to merely take the word of private school administrators or the students’ parents.
If the legislature is determined to continue funding the vouchers, it should impose appropriate accountability measures that assures taxpayers the money is paying for student education and that the schools are being operated in a financially responsible way. Additionally, the schools should demonstrate student progress through the same, or similar standardized tests that public schools are required to meet.
Failing to do this cheats North Carolina taxpayers and just as importantly, fails the students it is intended to help.

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