By MIRANDA BAINES
THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
The allocation of funds for education in the General Assembly of North Carolina’s budget has sparked a debate, both statewide and locally.
One particular piece of legislation – the Opportunity Scholarship Act – has raised the eyebrows of several local leaders, among them Rep. Joe Tolson, Edgecombe County Public Schools Superintendent John Farrelly, and Taro Knight, director of communications/ community outreach for North East Carolina Prep School (NECP), the county’s only public charter school.
The bill would provide scholarship grants of up to $4,200 for qualifying, low-income students to attend nonpublic schools.
“I am hopeful that the ‘Opportunity Scholarship Act’ legislation will not be enacted upon,” said Farrelly. “The Public School Systems in North Carolina are the foundation on which our great state has been built. The General Assembly needs to restore more funding to Public Education.”
Tolson also spoke out against the bill.
“I don’t think a lot of our families will be able to take advantage of these scholarships. They have to pay the money up front and then get reimbursed from the scholarship fund,” Tolson said. “It also pulls money from the public schools and they’re already hurting. This is why I did not support this bill.”
Knight’s thought is that since the vouchers don’t cover the full cost of private school tuition, funding for the vouchers gradually will increase, taking away even more funding from public schools. Tolson agreed, stating:
“If these scholarships grow, you will see more private schools trying to open.”
Knight said he completely disagrees with the vouchers, because traditional and charter schools alike are “doing everything we can with limited resources.”
Another debate centers on the funding of traditional public schools versus public charter schools. A line item in the General Assembly’s budget, “rural charter school development,” allocates $464,000 in support of a pilot program administered by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina intended to accelerate charter school development in rural North Carolina. Farrelly said the program should not have an impact on Edgecombe County since a charter school (NECP) has already been created here.
“It’s taking money out of the public schools anytime you open a charter,” Tolson said. “Anything we do to take money away from the public schools is a detriment to what I think most people are going to depend on for their educational process.”
Tolson said he doesn’t have a problem with charter schools as long as the quality of the educational program in the schools is “equal to what people can get in the public schools,” and perhaps NECP fills a “niche” in the community. However, funneling public dollars to charter schools weakens the traditional public school system, Tolson said.
“I’m not sure North Carolina can afford a dual educational process,” he said. “I just wish we could get people to get behind the public schools.”
Knight argued that NECP should receive “the same funding as traditional public schools because we are a public school … We are just allowed to do things a little differently and be a little more creative.”