Read our Fact Sheet on School Vouchers.
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 . 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?
In the , 9,651 students received Opportunity Scholarships. There were 405 private schools with recipients enrolled. The total cost of these scholarships was $37.9 million. The largest cohort of Opportunity Scholarship recipients attended a single religious school in Fayetteville, Trinity Christian School, with those 271 students making up more than half of its student population. Trinity Christian School received $1,121,400 in disbursements during the 2018-2019 school year. The 2018-2019 Budget Adjustments bill increased funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program from $45 to $55 million.
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 133% of the amount required for the student to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. A family of 4, for example, cannot exceed $47,638 to receive $4,200 (the largest grant), or $63,358 to get 90% of tuition or $3,780, whichever is lower.
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.
- 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.
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.
Updated September 2019