As the debate about the viability, fairness and effectiveness of a state-supported school voucher plan rages, at least one local private school is preparing to welcome what it hopes will be an influx of new students.
The North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Act, passed by the General Assembly in July 2013, will provide thousands of families with up to $4,200 to help cover the cost of a private school education. Implementation of the Act began Feb. 1, when signups for the Scholarships officially opened.
Ephesus Junior Academy, a K-8 private school on Cleveland Avenue, supported by Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church, has already received a half dozen inquiries from parents who are interested in enrolling their children at the school with the help of the scholarships, said Donald Wood, chairman of the Junior Academy Board of Directors.
We think this Opportunity Scholarship is such an opportunity for parents who had not been able to think about making this type of move,” he commented. “Now, they may be able to put their kids in a Christian school, and we hope they’ll choose us.”
If awarded to would-be Ephesus students, the scholarships could be an economic boon for the small school, which currently serves 17 students and greatly relies on donations from the Ephesus congregation, Wood said.
We’re excited about the thought that perhaps some children may be able to get some of that opportunity,” declared the father of two. “…I think it’ll be an enormous impact on the school. It’ll be a definite financial boost for the school.”
Wood, a native of the Washington, DC area, says he knows firsthand that students benefit from being educated in a small, Christian setting.
“I was kind of an absentee problem at school when I was a kid, and I ended up dropping out of high school several times,” explained Wood, director of the Professional Development Center at Winston-Salem State University’s School of Business and Economics. “When I finally decided to come back, I enrolled in a Seventh Day Adventist school in Maryland. My life was completely changed as a result of being a part of that school.”
Ephesus was actively involved in rallying support for the Scholarship Act as a member of Parents for Educational Freedom, Wood said. Tuition at Ephesus Junior Academy, which opened in the 1957, is $3,800 annually; there is also a $420 registration fee. A family who receives the maximum $4,200 scholarship, would only have to pay $20 out-of-pocket to send a child to the Academy.
The church’s congregation already pays the tuition for one student each year, and will likely continue to do so, as students who are not currently enrolled in public schools are not eligible for the state scholarships, Wood explained.
“We are encouraging parents to go ahead and apply, especially if they meet the qualifications,” he stated, “but we recognize that this is a lottery type program, and just because you apply, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to actually get the scholarships.”
Demand for the scholarships, which will be awarded to an estimated 2,400 students statewide, has already exceeded the available funding, meaning that some families will have to be turned away, according to Ann Petitjean, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators. However, the larger issue is that the program is syphoning vital funds away from the masses of students in public education to support a few, Petitjean asserts.
“Public school means public,” she declared. “Public dollars should not be used for private schools.”
Forty of North Carolina’s 115 school boards have signed on as plaintiffs in a court case challenging the school voucher law, but the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education voted last week not to join the lawsuit. Petitjean said she was disheartened – but not surprised – by the board’s actions.
“I was very disappointed that the people who swore to uphold public schools for all children felt that this was an option for our tax dollars,” she said of the vouchers. “I really felt like they were voting on their ideals and not on their responsibility to all of the children of Forsyth County.”
Although many small private schools like Ephesus have the students’ best interests at heart, they often lack the resources to deal with students who may be struggling in the public sector because they have special needs, and similar voucher programs in other states have shown that those students often end up back in the public school system shortly after transitioning to private schools, Petitjean said. Although she feels for her fellow educators, who she says have faced many hardships at the hands of the current General Assembly, it is North Carolina’s children who will ultimately pay the price for the decisions lawmakers and other leaders are making, Petitjean noted.
“We want our kids to have the best education that they can get, and that comes at a price,” she stated. “…Our per pupil expenditure is abysmal, and to me, I think our kids are worth it. I don’t understand why we can spend so much money on other things and not on public education.”
On Sunday, February 16, from 4-6 p.m. volunteers at Ephesus Junior Academy, 1225 N. Cleveland Ave. will be available to assist families with the application process for the Opportunity Scholarship. For more information, visit www.ejacademy.org or call 336-723-3140. Enrollment for Opportunity Scholarships closes on Tuesday, Feb. 25. See http://ncseaa.edu/K-12Grants.htm for details on eligibility and signups.