The North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship program supplies funds to help up to 6,000 low income students attend private schools. The state-run program is slated to expand in coming years. Education researchers from North Carolina State University recently evaluated the scholarship to see how it's working for parents and schools who participate.
The Opportunity Scholarship functions as a voucher program. Parents of students who are enrolled in a public school and qualify for free and reduced price lunch can apply for a scholarship of up to $4,200 to go toward the cost of private school enrollment.
The N.C. State researchers, led by primary investigator Anna Egalite, found that only two-thirds of students who received the scholarship in 2015 ultimately used the money. And so the researchers set out to find why not.
"We offered parents a number of categories, over 12 categories," Egalite said, " 'Was this the reason? Was that the reason?' And most of them selected 'Other.' "
They brought the question again to focus groups, and a trend began to emerge. Egalite said the most cited reason families didn't use the scholarship was that they still found private school too expensive.
"Parents were saying, 'Previously my child was fed breakfast and lunch in their public school, and I didn't realize that wouldn't be provided at the public school' " Egalite said. In addition to lunch, parents said the costs of transportation, uniforms, books and school application fees also became daunting. Although the school tuition and fees may have been affordable with the voucher, once they started to add up the other costs, for some families, it became unattainable.
"In North Carolina, the statute is written such that families have to make up the difference," Egalite said. "So if the school tuition costs more than the value of the voucher then the family is responsible for paying that."
Some privates schools helped families meet that difference with individual scholarships. Ultimately, the two-thirds of scholarship recipients who attended private schools were happy with their decision. The researchers found that 94 percent of parents rated their satisfaction with their private school as a 4 or 5 on a five-point scale.
The research also showed that less than half of private schools participate in the program.
"About 58 percent of private schools in the state registered to participate in the program, meaning that they would accept voucher students, and about 44 percent actually ended up doing that in 2015-2016."
Egalite said that means that as the program expands and more students qualify for the scholarship, it is possible that there will also be a shortage of private schools to meet the demand of students.