RALEIGH — About 2,400 children from low-income families will be able to use taxpayer dollars to attend a private school of their choice under the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program that launched Wednesday.
The controversial $10 million program, signed into law in July 2013 by Gov. Pat McCrory, will provide vouchers worth up to $4,200 to families who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program.
Parents could identify a top school of choice when they applied for the program. The overwhelming majority of those who chose picked religious schools. Most of the 440 schools requested are Christian, but two of the top three are Muslim.
Greensboro Islamic Academy topped the list with 170 requests, followed by Victory Christian Center School in Charlotte with 98 and Al-Iman School in Raleigh with 86.
For Cynthia Perry, whose 8-year-old daughter, Amiyah, struggles with reading, the voucher could mean smaller class sizes and more attention.
“This would probably be my only shot,” Perry said. “I’m a single parent. With the voucher, that would make it more affordable.”
Religion is also a factor for Perry, a Wake Forest mom who is considering using the voucher to send her daughter to Upper Room Christian Academy in Raleigh.
“I want her to have a biblical background, because that’s what we focus on at home, and I want her to see that played out at school as well,” she said.
The lottery was set for March, but it was temporarily blocked in February by Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood while questions about its constitutionality were heard in court. In May, the N.C. Supreme Court lifted the injunction.
Because the state received more than 5,500 applicants, it had to hold a lottery to choose which families would receive a voucher. On Wednesday, workers at the State Education Assistance Authority worked an Excel spreadsheet to select the eligible applicants.
Families began to receive notification of whether they had received the voucher on Wednesday afternoon, said Elizabeth McDuffie, grant writer with the organization.
Many disapprove of the law, including the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C School Boards Association, which have filed separate lawsuits seeking to block it.
Mark Jewell, vice president of the Association of Educators, said the law will hurt public schools and violates the state constitution.
“It’s basically a smokescreen in order to siphon off students who are already engaged,” Jewell said. “It’s siphoning off dollars from public schools that are already cash-strapped with resources that have been cut to the bare bones.”
The association also thinks the law improperly gets the government involved with religion.
“Those dollars are being funneled into faith-based schools, and we have an issue with taxpayer dollars going into a school that supports a religion,” Jewell said. “It’s a violation of the separation of church and state.”
But private school administrators defend the voucher program for the benefits it provides parents.
“Parents want options,” said Choya Boykin, principal of Word of God Christian Academy, the second-most requested Raleigh school. “I think it would give us an excellent opportunity to serve the students and parents who want to have an option of where to send their children and to fulfill our vision of having a Christ-centered education with a small classroom setting.”
The school of 170 students could “absolutely” take in the 61 students whose parents made the academy their top choice, Boykin said. And, he said, “We wouldn’t charge them a dime over the $4,200.”
Mussarut Jabeen, principal of Al-Iman, an Islamic school in Raleigh, also praised the program.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for parents to make a decision, what is their school of choice,” Jabeen said.
The school is the top-requested school in Raleigh. Jabeen said she thinks the 86 families who requested the school are attracted to the high academic standards and the freedom to practice Islam.
“They want their children to be in a safe environment that will help them practice their religion, and we teach Islam, and the Quran, and Arabic,” she said. “Our academic standards are higher. We have smaller class sizes. Our teachers try to give more attention to their students. That’s what parents like.”
Jabeen said she respected public schools but appreciated the choice the program allows parents.
“The whole idea is that we work together,” she said. “And that is the beauty in diversity.”