Read this 2020 fact sheet, Research Shows Private School Vouchers Don’t Work for Students and Harm Public Schools from Public Funds, Public Schools
View Voucher Data Charts:
- Cumulative Voucher Costs NC 2014-2015 to 2027-2028
- Requirements For Public vs Private School NC 2019
- Type of School Participating in the NC Voucher Program
- Requirements for Schools Participating in Voucher Programs
- Number of Vouchers in NC Schools by Curriculum
- NC Voucher Recipients by Race or Ethnicity 2014-2015 to 2018-2019
- Voucher Recipients Demographics 2019
- North Carolina School Vouchers by County, 2014-15 to 2019-20
Watch the Southern Education Foundation three-minute video, Vouchers and Tax Credit Scholarships in the U.S.
Read Characteristics of North Carolina Private Schools, a report issued by the Children’s Law Clinic, Duke University School of Law.
View information from the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. An overview can be found here (updated 2018).
“The moral imperative to support deep and lasting change in urban communities and reclaim public schools cannot be driven by vouchers, for-profit charters, mayoral control, Teach for America, and other billionaire-funded schemes.” from the .
Also referred to as “opportunity scholarships”, school vouchers are taxpayer-funded dollars that are paid directly to private and religious schools for tuition. During the 2013 Legislative Session, the NC General Assembly enacted an “Opportunity Scholarships Program” as part of the 2013-2015 biennial budget. According to the legislation, families could apply for a voucher worth as much as $4,200 towards private/faith-based school tuition. Public polling data from 2017 reports that 61 percent of Americans prefer a system that funds public schools. When asked if they would support a voucher that covered just half of private or religious school tuition, the number of parents who say they would opt for a public school increases to 72 percent.
Vouchers were originally . Brown v Board was a 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. White families who wanted to keep their children in segregated schools were granted vouchers to attend private schools. Today, vouchers are often sold as means for minority and low income children to opt-out of their local, high-poverty, under resourced schools. Voucher programs siphon money from local public schools and exacerbate existing problems with school performance and funding. In many areas of the country, this has resulted in school closures
What is the current status of school vouchers in North Carolina?
This years’ budget allocated more money to vouchers for private schools that are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual and gender identity. The cap on voucher payments was removed and voucher payments now will be equal to 90% of the per pupil expenditure ($5,850). Additionally, the income eligibility is expanded to allow families making up to 175% of the amount needed to qualify for the federal lunch program (~$85,794 a year for family of four). This expansion in eligibility goes significantly beyond just low-income families and extends eligibility to include a majority of NC families. Also included in the budget is $500,000 for an unnamed nonprofit to publicize and market the program. The voucher program has millions in unspent funds as interest has not kept up with funding.
As of November 8, 2021 18,620 (new and renewal) students received Opportunity Scholarships for the 2020-2021 school year. The total amount of Scholarships for 2020-21 was $38,055,481. There were 494 Participating Nonpublic Schools with recipients enrolled. Trinity Christian School of Fayetteville, Inc. in Fayetteville NC enrolled 350 students, making it the school with the largest cohort of scholarship recipients. These scholarships amounted to $1,409,100. Cumberland County had the most students receive Opportunity Scholarships with 1,587 students receiving scholarships. Opportunity Scholarship Program Recipients by race were: 57% White, 23% Black or African American, 10% two or more Races, 2% American Indian or Alaskan Native, 2% Asian, and 0.2% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. The remainder of Opportunity Scholarship recipients did not offer racial information.Opportunity Scholarship Program Recipients by ethnicity were 14% Hispanic, 68% Not Hispanic with 19% choosing not to answer.
In the 2019-2020 school year, 12,285 students received Opportunity Scholarships. There were 456 private schools with recipients enrolled. The total cost of these scholarships was over $48 million. The largest cohort of Opportunity Scholarship recipients attended a single religious school in Fayetteville, Trinity Christian School, with those 309 students making up more than half of its student population. Trinity Christian School received $1.2 million in disbursements during the 2019-2020 school year. The 2018-2019 Budget Adjustments bill increased funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program from $45 to $55 million. In 2020, the General Assembly expanded the program’s income eligibility requirements and removed limits on the number of vouchers that could be given to students entering kindergarten and first grade. This expansion and removal on award limits are estimated to cost North Carolina approximately $272 million over the next 10 years.
Read more about the damage to traditional public schools from vouchers here.
Charts Showing Current Voucher Data
2021 Major Changes to Eligibility and Funding for Vouchers
(Overview of History of School Vouchers in NC below.)
Both SB671 and HB32 were introduced in the 2021 legislative session. They both will substantially expand eligibility for the NC voucher program, funneling millions of taxpayer dollars to increasingly subsidize payments to families with children in private schools. This expansion is estimated to cost taxpayers a minimum of $159 million over the next nine years on top of the already billions of dollars allocated to the current voucher programs without the new proposed changes.
This proposed bill would divert even more money to private schools at a time when cash strapped traditional public schools are struggling to meet the many needs the pandemic has amplified. Even before the pandemic began, the movement to privatize education in NC has been decimating our traditional public schools and harming our academic at-risk students. Now, COVID-19 has added more risks to these vulnerable students. Opening our schools safely during COVID will require considerable investment to adequately support students as they return to school buildings. This should be our primary goal, not expanding funding to unaccountable, private, religious schools.
SB671 will go even further than HB32. This bill will increase eligibility to 324% of poverty ($85,794 for a family of four). Further the bills propose increasing the voucher payments from $4,200 a year to as much $6,586 (100% of the per pupil spending in public schools) without the ACCOUNTABILITY that our taxpayers deserve. This violates all reasonable business practices. Moving our state even further in the wrong direction at a time our public schools are struggling.
HB 32, would, according to detailed analysis by NC Policy Watch, make the following expansions (all require increased funding) to the voucher program (Opportunity Scholarship Program).
- No prior public school enrollment requirement for entering second graders
- Increase value of the voucher
- Loosening of prior public school enrollment requirement in grades 3-12
- Diversion of funds to marketing efforts.
- Increase of administration funding
HB32 makes the following changes to North Carolina’s two other voucher programs: the Disabilities Grant voucher and Personal Education Savings Accounts vouchers. The bill would:
- Merge the two programs and changes the name
- Expand eligibility for the vouchers
- Enact different awards and carry-forward rules
- Relax eligibility verification to receive the vouchers
- Forward-funds the program and creates guaranteed funding increases through FY 2031-32
SB671 seeks to do much the same on points that matter like family income eligibility and voucher payment amount. Without the millions of dollars these changes would cost, the legislative changes from last year alone to the voucher program expansion are estimated at $272 million over the next 10 years. SB 671 also eliminates the eligibility requirements and supports changes that could increase fraud in how the funds are used.
Other Pending Proposed Changes: Disabilities Grant and Personal Education Savings Account Programs
Currently, the Disabilities Grant program is a traditional voucher covering up to $8,000 per year for students with disabilities, and the Personal Education Savings Accounts program gives parents of qualifying children a debit card with $9,000 to spend on education-related expenses.
Three significant changes proposed by HB32 are the merger of Disabilities Grants and Personal Education Savings Accounts, changing the name to Personal Education Student Account, and expanding the eligibility for the vouchers. Currently, students must have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to qualify for either program. HB32 would also include students with a 504 plan. This would increase the allowable disabilities and even cover these identified students enrolled in college if they are taking less than 12 credits per year. Other details are explained here.
Recent Voucher Data
To qualify for an Opportunity Scholarship, a student must
- Be 5 years old on or before August 31
- Live in an eligible household
- Not have graduated from high school
- Be a resident of North Carolina
- Not have attended college
Additionally, they must meet one of the following criteria:
- Was a full-time student attending a NC public school or Department of Defense school in North Carolina last spring semester.
- Received a voucher in the previous school year.
- Be entering kindergarten or first grade.
- Live in foster care or be an adopted child whose decree was entered not more than a year before applying for the grant.
- Has a parent in full-time active duty in the military
In addition, the student must live in a household with an income level not in excess of 175% of the amount required for the student to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.
The NCSEAA relies on applicants to report all income. Only “a percentage” of applicants are “randomly selected to be verified, requiring families to provide documentation for items such as income, school enrollment, and household members.” Meaning, only applicants selected for verification have to submit tax returns as proof of income.
Background of North Carolina Opportunity Scholarships
The North Carolina General Assembly created a voucher program called Opportunity Scholarships in 2013. The Opportunity Scholarship program awards up to $4,200 per year for qualifying students to attend participating nonpublic schools. The state issued tax money to private schools for the first time in the 2014-2015 school year. After a lawsuit, the NC Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the program in July 2015. In 2016, the NCGA greatly expanded the program as part of the budget passed in the short session. The budget raised the percentage of funding available to K-1st grade students, and it established an Opportunity Scholarship reserve fund to be augmented by $10 million every year until 2027-28 when it will plateau at $144.8 million in annual funding. Future legislatures cannot be compelled to provide this funding, yet it represents a commitment to dramatically expanding this program without reviewing academic outcomes for students or increasing accountability for the taxpayers who fund it.
In 2016, the NCGA greatly expanded the program as part of the budget passed in the short session. The budget raised the percentage of funding available to K-1st grade students, and it established an Opportunity Scholarship reserve fund to be augmented by $10 million every year until 2027-28 when it will plateau at $144.8 million in annual funding. In the 2017-18 school year, 7001 students attended 405 private schools at a cost of $20.3 million.
HB90, passed in February 2018, expands the eligibility criteria for the Personal Education Savings Accounts (PESAs) voucher program, granting eligibility to grade 2-12 students who had not previously been enrolled in a public school. Expanding eligibility will lead to the need to expand the funding for this program and does not “save the state” money with this new eligibility plan. This type of program has been rife with abuse in other states, and will expand privatization of public education.
Vouchers raise questions because they:
- Reduce funding for public schools. A loss of dollars threatens academic programs and teaching staff at traditional public schools.
- Fund separate and unequal education and foster segregation. Private and religious schools are not required to serve free/reduced lunch, offer transportation, or provide special education services—and they can select the students they admit. Using public dollars to fund schools that cannot serve all students violates the NC Constitution. Nationwide, school choice programs have pushed more low-income minority students into even more racially segregated schools.
- Do not provide protections for LGBTQ+ students. There are many reports of private schools denying admittance to students on the basis of sexual or gender identity.
- Divert tax dollars to private entities. Voucher programs divert local tax dollars to largely unregulated private entities that run private schools. Taxpayers do not see how the money is used or who is spending it.
- Do not improve student success. Research shows there’s no evidence that unregulated school alternatives like private or religious schools offer a higher quality education for students.
- Lack academic accountability. Private schools do not have to hire licensed teachers, and are not subject to the academic standards imposed on public schools.
- Favor the wealthy. Even with a taxpayer-funded subsidy, most middle class families cannot afford to pay the difference between the subsidy and the high cost of a private school education.
- Benefit few students. The vast majority of our students—more than 1.5 million—are educated in our public schools. Private schools educate less than 7 percent of that number.
- Incur additional oversight costs. The growth of new private schools demands careful monitoring to ensure standards for schools accepting voucher funds are met. The cost of developing and administering such standards adds to taxpayer costs for education and is money diverted from actual classroom spending.
- Infringe on the separation of government and religion.Tax-payers should not be required to fund religious education. The First Amendment expressly protects us from being forced to subsidize religion.
- Divert talent and resources to private entities. When high achieving, high income students leave public schools, they take their resources with them.
Brief Timeline of Vouchers
- In December 2013, two lawsuits, each challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program, were filed. The NC Association of Educators and the NC Justice Center filed a suit on behalf of 25 plaintiffs from across the state. The NC School Boards Association filed the other lawsuit on behalf of four individual plaintiffs; 72 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have also adopted resolutions supporting the second suit.
- In February 2014, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood issued an injunction stopping the progress of the voucher program while the challenges made by the two lawsuits filed the previous December were ruled upon.
- In April 2014, the Court of Appeals denied a request to reverse the injunction issued by Judge Hobgood; however in May 2014, the NC Supreme Court lifted the injunction that had halted the implementation of the program.
- In August 2014, Judge Hobgood found school vouchers to be unconstitutional “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Further, he stated: “The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public, taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.”
- While the NC Supreme Court reviewed the case, the school voucher program continued to proceed. As of February 2017, $29.8 million dollars had already been spent on the program.
- On July 23, 2015, the NC Supreme Court declared that using taxpayer dollars to fund private school vouchers is constitutional.
- On March 1, 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper proposed a budget that phases out Opportunity Scholarship funding, saying that he would prefer spending on public schools “where we have more accountability and where more students can benefit.”
- In March 2017, the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School released a study of the Opportunity Scholarship program that concluded it was designed to provide parents with unfettered choice and to support religious schools with tax money, not to provide improved academic outcomes for children. Researchers also concluded that such accountability measures as are included in the program are among the worst in nation.
- In August 2017, researchers at NCSU completed the following report: A Profile of Applicants to North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program Descriptive Data on 2016-17 Applicants.
- For the 2017-18 school year, 7,001 students attended 405 private schools at a cost of $20.3 million. The largest cohort of Opportunity Scholarship recipients attended a single religious school in Fayetteville, with those 201 students making up more than half of its student population. The largest dollar amount, $451,442, went to Liberty Christian Academy in Richlands, NC, where 122 of the 145 students are voucher recipients.
What other states have a voucher program?
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia provide state-funded school vouchers to qualifying students.
- Click here to see a comparison of these programs.
- Click here to read one perspective on the three earliest voucher programs: Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida.
Public Schools First NC, 2017 School Vouchers, http://www.publicschoolsfirstnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/School_Vouchers_NC.pdf
NC Policy Watch, 2013, School Vouchers Come to North Carolina, http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2013/09/04/school-vouchers-come-to-north-carolina/
PDK Poll, 2018, How would you grade the public schools? https://pdkpoll.org/results/how-would-you-grade-the-schools
NC Churches, 2015, Private School Vouchers, Lax Standards, https://www.ncchurches.org/2015/08/private-school-vouchers-lax-standards/
NCSEAA, Opportunity Scholarship Program,2013- 2019 http://www.ncseaa.edu/documents/OPS_Summary_Data.pdf
Citylab, 2017, Mapping White Flight Into Charter Schools https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/01/what-betsy-devos-didnt-say-about-school-choice/513269/
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 2011, Back to Basics: Why School Vouchers Violate Religious Liberty Rights https://www.au.org/church-state/february-2011-church-state/editorial/back-to-basics-why-school-vouchers-violate
NCAE, 2013, North Carolinians Challenge Unconstitutional Voucher Legislation https://www.ncae.org/litigation-news/north-carolinians-challenge-unconstitutional-voucher-legislation/
Trinity Community Services, K-12 School of Academics http://www.trinitycommunityservices.org/k-12-academics/
National Conference of State Legislators, 2014, School Voucher Laws: State-by-State Comparison http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/voucher-law-comparison.aspx
NEA, 2002, School Vouchers: The Emerging Track Record: http://www.nea.org/home/16970.htm
NCSEAA, Opportunity Scholarship Program, Voucher Recipients by Ethnicity and Race ,http://www.ncseaa.edu/documents/2019-20OPSRecipientsbyEthnicity.pdf
NCSEAA, Opportunity Scholarship Program, 2019-2020 Recipients http://www.ncseaa.edu/documents/2019-20OPSDisbbyNPS.pdf
NCSEAA, Opportunity Scholarship Program, 2019-2020 Recipients by County http://www.ncseaa.edu/documents/2019-20OPSRecipientsbyNPS.pdf
WRAL, April, 2019, Editorial: Taxpayer-funded vouchers shouldn’t go to schools that discriminate https://www.wral.com/editorial-taxpayer-funded-vouchers-shouldn-t-go-to-schools-that-discriminate/18301351/
NC Policy Watch, April 2019, “Must read” editorial blasts NC’s discriminatory school voucher program http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2019/04/04/must-read-editorial-blasts-ncs-discriminatory-school-voucher-program/
PoliticsNC, Thomas Mills, January 2018, The Pearsall Plan Revisited, https://www.politicsnc.com/the-pearsall-plan-revisited/
Updated November, 2021