NC spends $133M on private school vouchers. Lawmakers are proposing much more.
Now that Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly, they have a lot of power to turn their priorities into reality. One of the GOP priorities this session has been school choice, including private school vouchers.
WUNC’s Will Michaels sat down with education reporter Liz Schlemmer to ask her about the state's main voucher program and where it's headed.
North Carolina has had the Opportunity Scholarship voucher for a while now, since 2014, remind us what it is and how it works...
A voucher is state money, taxpayer money, granted to a K-12 student to pay for tuition at a private school. The value of the Opportunity Scholarship voucher is currently about $6,500, which is near but less than the approximate amount of state spending on average per public school student.
It acts like a scholarship, but it’s not competitive. If a student applies and they are eligible, they will receive it. Eligibility is based on a student's family income. That income cap has been raised over the years in past legislation. The voucher was initially for students who were either coming from public schools or applying in kindergarten or first grade, and now a first-time applicant can be in kindergarten through second grade.
This year, North Carolina is spending $133 million on Opportunity Scholarships to pay for more than 25,000 students to attend private schools, and about 90% of those students attend religious schools. That's based on data from the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program.
You said this program has already expanded, so where's it headed now?
The voucher program has grown rapidly in the last few years as previous state budgets have added funding to the program and eased eligibility requirements, but there are still restrictions on who's eligible to apply.
There are a few proposals in the statehouse right now to expand eligibility to any private school student. Powerful Republican senators who chair the Senate education committee have filed a bill that would change income eligibility requirements for vouchers, and Representative Tricia Cotham has followed that with a similar bill in the House. These bills may foreshadow what will be in the Senate budget proposal.
Senate Bill 406 would remove income restrictions so any student who attends a private school can receive state money to pay for it — even if they have always attended a private school, and would have with or without a voucher. The amount of the voucher would be determined on a sliding scale based on the family income of the applicant, and the largest awards — for students who would qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — would be equal to state-funded per-student spending on public school students.
Supporters of the voucher program are adamant that it's good for the families and the best use of education dollars. What do they mean by that?
First of all, they say that there's demand. There are parents who want to send their child to private schools and either can't pay for it or struggle to pay for it and are currently not eligible for Opportunity Scholarships.
Voucher supporters say tax dollars should follow the child. Brian Jodice with Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, describes this as giving families the tax dollars that would be spent to educate their child in a public school.
“It's taking some of those dollars and putting it in their kid's metaphorical backpack and sending it to the school of their choice,” Jodice said.
I spoke to Senate leader Phil Berger about the Senate bill, which he says he supports.
“Wealthier people have always had choices as far as where their kids go to school. Whether it's the choice to buy a house in a neighborhood that has a particular school where residency is important or the ability to actually send their child to a private school," Berger said. "Those choices, I believe, are choices that a parent is best able to make than anybody else."
When we spoke, Berger added a long-held argument that vouchers save the state money when a student moves from a public school to a private school.
But this isn't just going to be kids moving from public schools to private schools, this is saying, wherever you send your child to school, the state will pay a portion.
Exactly, this bill would create new state spending on students the state has previously never paid for. There are about 115,000 registered private school students in the state and about 1 in 6 receives an Opportunity Scholarship voucher now. So imagine if they all did — plus private school enrollment will likely grow due to this policy.
So more money for students to go to private school... does that mean less for public schools? What would be the impacts of that?
Public school advocates have made that argument for years. Josh Cowen is an education policy researcher from Michigan State University who has been studying school voucher programs for about 20 years, and he's now openly against them.
“The longer-term financial impacts of this are devastating for public school budgets. Absolutely. But in the short term, the real issue is that you're getting the state standing up new budgetary obligations to prop up private school tuition where otherwise it's been borne by the private sector,” Cowen said.
He says this idea of opening vouchers up to current private school students is the big fight right now in some states — and that in states like New Hampshire, it has cost a lot more than initial estimates because most of the new voucher recipients don't come from public schools.
He says these programs can be what he calls "cash giveaways for the wealthy,” but he's even more concerned that they convince parents of at-risk kids to send their child to a school that's going to be less rigorous than a public school.
“You get these, what I call subprime providers, these private schools that they're not the elite institutions that we kind of think of, you know, Dead Poets Society, or some of these movies with, you know, tweed jackets. That's not a typical private school taking a voucher,” Cowen said.
There are more than 500 private schools in North Carolina that receive vouchers, some are really small operations and there isn't a lot of oversight or regulation of them.
Senate Bill 406 proposes spending $3 billion on Opportunity scholarships over seven years. Can you put that in perspective to what the state spends on education?
If you break that down to one year, the bill proposes spending about half a billion dollars ($494.5 million to be exact) on Opportunity Scholarships in the fiscal year 2031 alone.
Compared to the current education budget, that:
- is twice what the state spends on public school transportation annually, which right now is facing a huge bus driver shortage in urban counties.
- could pay for about a 12% teacher raise, not including their benefits.
- is more than the amount the state spends annually on all college scholarships.
- is worth about ¾ of one year of the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan that lawmakers have not fully funded
Whenever you talk about a budget, you're talking about choices, and this is the choice Republicans lawmakers are proposing.