$500M in vouchers for private schools

Published November 2, 2023

By Higher Ed Works

Is North Carolina’s dramatic expansion of vouchers for private schools – with no limits on family income – an effort to find what’s best for each child? Or an effort to undermine and divert funds from public education?

A debate on those questions at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic & Conference Center was the second in a four-week series of Home Town Debates on education topics sponsored by Spectrum News and the NC Institute of Political Leadership. Higher Ed Works and BEST NC serve as advisors for the series.

The new state budget that took effect in early October lays out a plan to expand Opportunity Scholarships – vouchers for students to attend private schools – from $95 million in 2022-23 to $520 million a year by 2032-33. The budget also removes family income limits, so even a student already in private school can receive tax dollars to attend.

Sen. Benton Sawrey, R-Johnston, stressed that Opportunity Scholarships are about doing what’s best for an individual student, whatever his or her needs.

“This is about the student – it’s about the student’s success and the student’s option. A student should not be trapped in a potentially failing school system just by virtue of their ZIP code,” Sawrey said.

The state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education” to each child does not specify that it must be a public education, he added.

Former state Rep. Marcus Brandon, a school-choice advocate who co-sponsored the 2013 bill that created Opportunity Scholarships, repeatedly spoke about “Ms. Brown,” who has a child who has 3 Fs, 2 Ds and a C, has been suspended twice, and needs a better option.

“Ms. Brown needs today – not 10 years from now, not 15 years from now, not ‘We’re working on it,’ not ‘We’re trying to fix it,’ ‘We might get teachers paid higher, we may not’ … Ms. Brown is not obligated to be a statistic, or to be entitled for her daughters to go to a particular school just because you feel that’s the best place for her child to be served when she’s telling you that’s not the best place for her child to be served,” Brandon said.

“You cannot actually work on a problem for 50 years and it actually gets worse,” he said. He also noted that African-American students continue to be suspended from public schools far more often than white students.

LAUREN FOX, the Senior Director of Policy and Research for the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said public schools already offer such choices as magnet schools, charter schools and Early College.

Private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools, Fox said, and they can discriminate in admissions based on religion or gender identity.

“If you are accepting public money, everyone should be accepted where that public money is accepted – point blank. Period,” said Rep. Zack Hawkins, D-Durham, a former teacher. 

Public schools are projected to lose 26,000 students and $203 million a year (by 2026-27) due to the expansion of vouchers, he said.1

In other states that offer universal vouchers, Hawkins said, few families from lower socioeconomic brackets take advantage of them, while many in higher tax brackets do. 

Fox said that in Arizona, 70-75% of people who took advantage of universal scholarships were families who already had students in private school.

“Is that really where we want our tax dollars to be going when we have underfunded public schools in the state?” she asked.

Fox noted that the stated purpose when North Carolina created Opportunity Scholarships was to serve those without other school options.

“We can’t say that that is the case with the expansion of this program, making it open to families that are already sending their children to private schools and that very much can afford to pay the full tuition,” she said.

PERHAPS THE MOST POINTED exchange came in response to a question about use of public tax dollars at religious schools, which account for 88% of the dollars spent on Opportunity Scholarships.2

Sawrey said the state is not funding private schools, but funding the individual student and the best choice for that student, whether the school is a religious school, an arts program or a career and technical academy.

“Education isn’t a one-size-fits-all model,” he said. “I disagree and reject the argument that the state is funding these schools that people are going to say are discriminatory or wrong…. What the state is doing instead is putting money in the backpack of that child to make the best choice for that family.”

Hawkins had a different view. “It literally is funding an industry,” he said. “More people are going to want to create more private schools…

“What they are doing is, again, the decimation of public education by giving money to these (private schools),” he said. “They’re creating this industry because they don’t believe in public schools or the way that public schools operate.”

Students in private schools should live up to the same standards as any public school, Hawkins said.

HAWKINS NOTED that the state sees ongoing shortages of both teachers and bus drivers. Yet as the state continues to cut both personal and corporate income taxes, he expects funds for public schools to shrink.

“We could take that exact same (voucher) money and put it into improving and doing everything we want our public schools to do. $500 million dollars, the last time I checked, any North Carolinian will tell you, that’s a lot of money. And we can do exactly what we need to do with that money to serve people,” he said.

The state is not fully supporting public schools, said Fox.

“The fact of the matter is we aren’t – we are not fully funding public schools,” she said. The state ranks 48th in per-student spending and 50th – last in the country – for its funding effort.

“We’re last. We have not been doing it – that’s why we’ve been engaged in a lawsuit for almost 30 years,” she said, referring to the long-running Leandro lawsuit over state support for public schools. She noted that parties in the case have agreed to a plan to fund public schools.

“That costs money,” Fox said. “We’re not going to get there without fully funding our public education system.”

Hawkins noted that Research Triangle Park lies in his district, and that businesses want educated workers.

“The only way that we will continue to be No. 1 to do business.… I talk to these businesses. The first question they ask is, ‘How are our public schools? How can we create pipelines from these companies in RTP to public schools?’” he said.

“The economic engine is to make sure that those people have careers, entrepreneurship, can go onto public education, etc. And we are failing to do that by sending $500 million out the door.”

Indeed, it is clear that dramatically increased state support for private schools will divert public tax dollars that could otherwise help our public schools.

1 https://governor.nc.gov/documents/files/osbm-s406-h823-impact-analysis/open.
2 https://www.wral.com/story/nc-plan-to-expand-private-school-vouchers-rekindles-debate-over-separation-of-church-and-state/20924861/.