The Case for Vouchers Collapses

August 7, 2023


  • The case for private school vouchers has totally fallen apart
  • Public opposition has grown as the consequences become clear
  • Vouchers have failed in several states this year – will North Carolina be next?


In the months since Republican leaders unveiled their plans for an unprecedented expansion of North Carolina’s private school voucher program, the reaction from across the state has been swift – and nothing but bad for proponents. As families, education leaders and especially school districts across the state have learned more about Senate Bill 406, the Republican private school voucher expansion (now included in the State Senate’s budget proposal), alarm bells have sounded all over the state – particularly in rural counties, which perversely stand to lose the most under the plan.

Yet even as public opposition grows, will it be enough?

This year, we’ve seen similar voucher expansion proposals die in state legislatures like Idaho, Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky. The politics of these states vary, but there is a common theme: in every case, rural legislators and supporters of education alike balked at the last minute at vouchers because of the disastrous consequences they held for those lawmakers’ districts. Could we see the same here in North Carolina?

The backlash grows

We’ve seen a steady backlash against the proposed private school voucher expansion ever since Republican leaders announced it this spring:

  • First came the Office of State Budget and Management technical analysis showing that the proposed voucher expansion would take roughly $200 million out of the public school system, while sending even more – over a quarter of a billion dollars – to private schools. Their analysis examines a range of potential impacts, based on the projected percentage of voucher recipient families whose students already attend private schools.
  • Next, the superintendents of nineteen school districts across northeast North Carolina signed on to an open letter to legislators asking them to abandon the voucher expansion effort, citing the “very negative consequences” it would have for their vast region of the state. Those leaders were soon joined by twelve more school boards from across the state, echoing the same concerns for their areas.
  • Then, the North Carolina Caucus of Black School Board Members passed its own resolution opposing the voucher expansion and calling on community members to do the same.
  • Last week, a thoroughly bipartisan whos-who of state education leaders and experts signed on to another joint letter opposing the voucher expansion on the basis that it “not only undermines our public schools, but it also undermines our free and democratic society.”

The projected losses to schools statewide is truly an ugly prospect to countenance. An expansion of vouchers would drain funds from every single school district across the state:

But will it be enough?

A rout, on the merits

Purely on the merits of policy, private school vouchers are a no-win situation.

Perversely, an expansion of vouchers will hurt school districts in North Carolina’s ailing rural counties the hardest. In most rural parts of our state, as in other states, there are simply no private alternatives to public schools at all. Not only that, but because local tax bases are far thinner, local communities have no way to make up for the outflow of resources from their school districts that an expansion of vouchers would trigger. Rural school systems, already reeling from decades of underinvestment, would see their budgets shrink yet again.

The state’s existing voucher program is also a glaring example of fraud, waste and mismanagement. Even a cursory investigation of voucher data showed that millions in taxpayer money each year vanishes by paying for “ghost students,” and even whole “ghost schools.” This grift seems to have been happening right out in the open, with absolutely no attempt to hide it – and yet, incredibly, it was exposed not by the state office that manages the voucher program, nor by legislative “oversight,” but by gumshoe outside researchers using public information. One imagines what isn’t public yet.

Perhaps most critically, voucher-funded private schools do not perform better academically – in fact, they may actually perform worse. A large-scale, longitudinal study of Ohio’s private school voucher program specifically found that “the students who used vouchers to attend private schools fared worse on state exams compared to their closely matched peers remaining in public schools.” (See the full Fordham Institute report.) Numerous studies and peer-reviewed research – produced not by donor-funded partisan activists, but by nonpartisan scholars – come to the same conclusion, like this study from Louisiana, this one from Washington D.C., and this one from Indiana.

The prognosis is grim

Nevertheless, Republican backers of the voucher expansion have vowed to push ahead. Both House and Senate Republican leadership in the legislature have passed their respective voucher bills, and the issue now sits in negotiations over the state budget between both chambers.

Nevertheless, this is exactly the scenario under which similar voucher expansions have ultimately failed in those other states. Nothing is ever final in Raleigh until the bill is signed. Yet while there are many rumors of dissent among Republican lawmakers, none have made their dissatisfaction public. If the voucher expansion succeeds, it will be another hammer blow to one of the most fundamental, and Constitutionally mandated, services North Carolina offers its people: a sound, basic education for every child.

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