An anti-school choice Democratic state senator has sent a letter to at least 16 private schools threatening a misdemeanor charge if they don’t comply with an information request.

Sen. Michael Garrett, D-Guilford, sent a letter dated April 15 to the schools that receive funds for Opportunity Scholarships, the state’s voucher program that makes a private school education affordable for families who chose that option.

The attached school information request queries the schools on when they first opened, how many students attend, their number of teachers, and who on staff has “the highest decision-making authority.” The letter asks for more granular detail related to the Opportunity Scholarship, including detailed demographic information on the students participating, in addition to financial reviews and aggregate testing performance.

The letter also asks whether the school has a dress code, what disciplinary policies are in place, whether the school follows any non-discrimination policies, whether students are “required to participate in any religious activities,” and whether “students from other religious backgrounds [are] provided time and space to accommodate their practices.”

“I respectfully request your assistance in a review of the Opportunity Scholarship and its recent expansion […]We request a full and complete response to our request, including all associated documents, by no later than close of business (5:00 P.M.) Thursday, April 30, 2024,” the letter states.

Garrett’s letter also quotes a general statute threatening a Class 2 misdemeanor charge for any person who “conceals, falsifies, or refuses to provide” information requested by the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, of which Garrett is a member.

Three additional senators are carbon copied on the letter: Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, Sen. Sydney Batch, D-Wake, and Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, D- Mecklenburg.

Attorney Paul “Skip” Stam, a former House lawmaker and key original sponsor of the bill creating the Opportunity Scholarship, sent a response to the letter dated April 17. Stam represents Fayetteville Christian School, one of the schools that received Garrett’s letter.

“I have advised the school not to respond to your letter,” Stam wrote. “The first and sufficient reason is that no individual member of the Commission has the right to demand anything from anyone, before or after the 2023 amendments to the statute. I point out that many, if not most, of the requests for information are not recognizable by the Joint Commission. Finally, your threat of criminal penalties for those not responding might be rethought. If an attorney did that in a demand letter to an opponent it would be actionable. You have some immunity as a Senator. I object to it.”

Stam also pointed out that if “each member of the Commission has the right to make this demand, then any other member could make a similar demand to any other entity receiving, directly or indirectly, state funds.”

Under state law, schools that participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program are accountable in several financial, administrative, and academic areas. For schools receiving more than $300,000 in scholarship grants, each institution is required to contract with a certified public accountant to perform an annual financial review. 

Schools are also required to administer annual standardized testing for third through 12th grade that covers English grammar, reading, spelling, and mathematics. For schools with more than 25 scholarship recipients, they must report aggregate standardized test scores that are a public record.

Moreover, each private school is barred from discriminating regarding race, color, or national origin, to comply with the Civil Rights Act.

Opportunity Scholarships have been growing in popularity. In the 2023 budget, state lawmakers expanded eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship Program to all North Carolina families. In response, the program received over 72,000 applications. According to data from the NC Education Assistance Authority, the state agency responsible for overseeing Opportunity Scholarships, 32,511 renewal families have been offered awards, in addition to 13,511 new students.

The remaining applicants could still receive funding for the upcoming school year if the General Assembly allocates more funds in the short session.