It was Saturday morning, and that meant the Cortes family was at church. They are faithful Seventh-day Adventists. Eleven-year-old Eddie played the piano to start the service.
His father, Eddie Sr. sat in the first church pew, next to Mafer, 15, and Natalie, 13, who leaned on their mom, Heidy.
"Worship time for us is family time," said Heidy Cortes.
The family's Christian faith is central to their lives, and for the past six years, the kids have attended school at the small academy run by the Raleigh Seventh-day Adventist Church.
"We try to have fun with the kids and teach them to grow physically, mentally and spiritually. … Christ-centered," Cortes explained.
But the kids didn't always have a Christ-centered education. The family moved to Raleigh from Connecticut in 2010, in part, because Cortes read that Wake County was home to one of the best school systems in the country.
A strong education for their children was important to Heidy and Eddie Cortes, who are both immigrants from Venezuela. Back home, she was a lawyer and he was a computer engineer, but they had to start over in the U.S. Now she's an interpreter and he works in construction. They say their experience as immigrants is part of why they value education.
All three kids started out in Wake County public schools. Then, their oldest daughter, Maria Fernanda – nicknamed Mafer – started being bullied in third grade. Mafer has a very mild disability from a stroke she suffered at birth. She holds her hand differently, and walks a little differently.
"That was a very easy target for other kids to make fun of her," Cortes explains. Mafer says she would often cry when she got home and tell her parents about the bullying.
The family talked about it, and made a big decision. They decided to move Mafer from the public school system to the Adventist Christian Academy of Raleigh. It was a very small school, with only a few dozen students at the time, and was well-connected with their faith community.
Almost immediately, they loved it. Heidy and Eddie had always wanted to send their kids to the Seventh-day Adventist school.
This is the second of a three part series. Read the first story here: North Carolina's School Voucher System Continues to Grow: How Did We Get Here?
But what sealed the deal was the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, when a gunman shot and killed 20 kindergartners and six school employees in the family's former state of Connecticut.
"It was so painful that I didn't send my boy to school, for like a week," Heidy Cortes said. "I just wanted to move him to home, or to this little environment with just 25 kids."
The following school year, they moved their two younger kids to the Adventist school, too, but paying the tuition was tough, at about $4,300 per child each year. Then, Heidy learned about the Opportunity Scholarship – a voucher from the state for low-income families worth $4,200 per year to pay for private school tuition. Children who come from a family with a household income at 133 percent the amount required for the student to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program are eligible to apply.
The Cortes family applied for the scholarship, but were denied. To be eligible, the students had to be in a public school at the time they applied.
So the family had to make another decision: Would they put their kids back in public school, to be eligible for the scholarship?
Mafer was already in high school, and they decided not to move her to a big public school. But younger siblings Natalie and Eddie went back to in the public school system for a year, so they could apply for the scholarship. Heidy Cortes said she knows other families who did the same. She also says her family was open to the idea of keeping Natalie and Eddie in public school, but ultimately, decided against it.
"It wasn't what I wanted for my kids," Heidy Cortes said. "My kids were just a little person in a huge group, and they kind of got lost in the middle of everything."
And she'd rather have them in a Christian environment. She said she feels like they can't talk about or develop their faith in public school.
The reasons the Cortes family wanted to move their children from public schools to private school were typical. A 2017 study from North Carolina State University surveyed and conducted focus groups with families that received the Opportunity Scholarship. Some of the most common reasons families said they chose private schools over public schools were school quality, concerns about school safety, class size and seeking a faith-based education.
Opportunity Scholarships Help Private Schools Grow
The Corteses applied for the Opportunity Scholarship for Natalie and Eddie. They got the scholarships, and put the children back in the Adventist Christian Academy. Heidy Cortes said they're not the only ones who did that. The school has grown from around 20 students a few years ago to around 50 students today. She said a lot of that growth is because of the Opportunity Scholarship. Heidy Cortes has helped the families of dozens of students fill out applications for the voucher, offering advice and helping Hispanic families translate the online documents.
Many other private schools could grow as well. The state budget will add another $10 million each year to the program, for the next 10 years − unless future legislatures change the appropriation. In 2028, the state could pay as much as $145 million for the program. That would be close to how much the state spent on the salaries of all the principals in North Carolina last year − a sign of competing budget priorities.
Then there is the issue of separation of church and state. Bill Leonard is an expert on the topic. He's a Baptist minister and professor at the Wake Forest School of Divinity.
"Underneath all this is the question of tax dollars being used for those schools from individuals who have no voice in those particular schools, and no representation, like in public schools (with) school boards," Leonard said.
Critics of the program say that representation is necessary for accountability, and that accountability is lacking. Roughly four out of five schools that receive North Carolina vouchers are religious. And religious institutions are not required to file taxes. Only the 10 highest paid schools in the program were required to submit any financial information to the state last year. Participating schools have full discretion on which students they enroll. That means they can discriminate on religious grounds.
On the flip side of taxpayer concerns, Leonard says religious institutions have often been wary of receiving government funding, because they did not want to be tainted in any way by government control.
Many religious schools in North Carolina have chosen not to receive vouchers. Another study from N.C. State found that many schools which opted out of accepting vouchers said they were concerned the program could become more regulated in the future, or that it requires too much paperwork and reporting.
Leonard said that in a perfect world, churches would raise the money to fully support their religious schools and create scholarships for students like the Cortes kids.
"What I would have hoped is that the community of faith would open their hearts and their pocketbooks to that family without having to step into that larger issue of using taxpayer money," Leonard said.
Heidy Cortes said she's grateful to receive help from the state to send her kids to the Adventist Christian Academy. She said she feels better, having her kids get a Christian education in a small, family-like environment.
"And this is the way that I think, the future will tell us if I was right," Heidy Cortes said, adding that she's always liked the phrase, "Mother knows best."