During the 2020 legislative session at the North Carolina General Assembly, lawmakers made changes to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program that will cost the state approximately $272 million over the next 10 years, according to a new report from the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project. [Editor’s note: The Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.]
Since 2015, the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program – which provides private school vouchers to children in households with low incomes – has drained limited state resources from the state’s struggling public schools, said the report. Initially, the program required eligible students to reside in families with incomes less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, with eligibility increased to 246 percent in the program’s second year.
Overall, voucher programs negatively impact district budgeting by reducing availability of state funds and in turn limiting availability of state appropriations, the report said, while also raising district costs of delivering education by contributing to declining enrollment.
“For state lawmakers, the added costs of the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program will lessen funding availability for
other state government responsibilities,” said Kris Nordstrom, Senior Policy Analyst for the Education & Law Project and author of the report. “For school district leaders, the changes will exacerbate the budget pressures caused by declining enrollment.”
This year, the General Assembly made two changes to the program that will further negatively impact state and school finances going forward:
- The income eligibility threshold was raised from 246 percent of the federal poverty level to 278 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, the maximum household income increased from $64,465 to $72,705. This change affects the program’s financial impact by extending eligibility to more families who were planning to send their children to a private school even in the absence of the voucher program
- The General Assembly removed the cap on the number of new vouchers that could be awarded to students entering kindergarten or 1st grade. Initial eligibility for a voucher requires a student to have been previously enrolled in a public school unless they are entering kindergarten or 1st grade. As a result, many applicants entering kindergarten or 1st grade would have attended a private school even in the absence of the voucher program. Prior to the 2020-21 school year, only 40 percent of newly awarded vouchers could go to students entering kindergarten or 1st grade. This cap was vital to minimizing program costs.
Combined, these changes are predicted to cost the state millions into the foreseeable future.
“Financial concerns are just one negative aspect of voucher programs – even if the Opportunity Scholarship program saved the state money, there would be good reason to eliminate it,” Nordstrom said. “These programs fundamentally seek to reimagine schooling as an individualistic pursuit. Like other market-based schooling schemes, vouchers pit schools and students against each other, whereas a strong public school system recognizes and builds upon the shared benefits that a quality education imparts on students as well as the broader society.”
For one, the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program subsidizes discrimination against LGBTQIA families, the report said. The voucher schools are permitted to discriminate because of religion, gender, and sexual orientation, and lawmakers have additionally failed to create a public process for students or their families to report discriminatory practices. Additionally, it is unlikely that Opportunity Scholarship voucher students are receiving a superior education in their private schools. North Carolina’s voucher schools are not required to meet any minimal standards for teacher or school quality.
“Such issues make voucher programs harmful to society. They undermine education as a shared societal goal and they foster division and hatred,” Nordstrom said. “These issues become harder to overlook when the program is also costing the state millions of dollars per year and increasing budgetary pressures on our inclusive public school districts.”