With the passing of the 2023-24 state budget, North Carolina became the tenth state to offer taxpayer-funded universal school vouchers to attend private schools. Despite the fact that the funds for school vouchers through North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program have never been fully utilized, the new state budget triples the program’s funding, allocating $4.6 billion of taxpayer dollars toward private schools over the next decade. At the same time, traditional public schools that serve as the hubs of our communities are dealing with significant challenges including teacher and bus driver shortage, large class sizes and overcrowded buildings due to inadequate funding from the NC General Assembly, which bears the responsibility to fund school operational expenses. A recent analysis by the NC Office of State Budget Management predicts that public schools could lose more than $300 million per year as a direct result of this expansion with rural and low-wealth counties seeing the largest declines in funding.
Unlike public schools, private and parochial schools have the authority to deny access to students based on religion, identity and academic achievement. The vast majority of schools currently receiving Opportunity Scholarship voucher dollars are religious, and those schools may take actions that are in opposition to parents’ views or deny admission based on a family’s religious choices or sexual orientation. One private school in Fayetteville made the news in 2022 after 100 students were baptized without the consent of their parents. That school received nearly $1.2 million in taxpayer money this year. Several of the schools receiving over $1 million in taxpayer-funded vouchers this year forbid students or educators who identify as LGBTQ to be affiliated with the school.
Private schools receiving taxpayer dollars may also set their own tuition rates and are not required to provide transportation or free lunch or to adhere to federal requirements for special education, which means they are not a viable choice for many families and children with the greatest need.
Private and parochial schools also lack accountability measures to guarantee that the public funding they receive is being used to provide students with a quality education. Private schools receiving our tax dollars are not required to employ certified teachers and have no requirements for curriculum or academic standards. Our current voucher system has very minimal transparency and accountability measures, and very few schools are required to publicly report their student outcome data, making it difficult for parents and taxpayers to evaluate them. Recent studies, including those in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and DC, find little evidence that school vouchers improve test scores — in fact, they’ve sometimes led to score declines. Some students had test score declines for students moving from public schools to private schools were comparable to declines that we saw as a result of the pandemic.
The expansion of the Opportunity Scholarships Program has been framed as a way to give families greater choice when it comes to education, but research shows local public schools are the choice for 85 percent of parents in North Carolina. And the truth is, this expansion mainly offers choices to private schools — the choice of who gets to be educated, the choice of what qualifies as an adequate education and the choice of how to report the outcomes of public investment. In states that have already transitioned to universal school vouchers, we know that the majority of new enrollees have never attended a public school- and it is likely that the majority of those who will benefit from North Carolina’s expansion of the program will likely be families who already can afford and are sending their children to private schools.
North Carolina has over 1.4 million students in our traditional and charter public schools that serve every child, and provide vast choices and services. North Carolina public schools provide support for students with specific needs, magnet programs, dual language immersion schools, career pathway academies, early college high schools, dual enrollment options for those wishing to get college credit while in high school and more. Shifting state funding away from our community schools that are the choice of the vast majority of North Carolina families will harm our children and our state’s future.