The Massive Upward Money Hose

May 6, 2024


  • Redoubled private school voucher funding targets wealthier households
  • Private schools are flocking to claim easy government cash
  • The private school voucher network remains crammed with fraud and graft


Last week, Republican leaders in North Carolina’s State Senate advanced their long-telegraphed plans to double down on funding for the expanded private school voucher scheme. Led by Republican State Senator Michael Lee (New Hanover), the North Carolina Senate approved a whopping $500 million of additional taxpayer dollars for the program, which was already expected to cost $4.4 billion over the next decade. With Republican House Speaker Tim Moore on the record supporting the funding as well, this new slug of voucher funding is expected to be passed into law as soon as next week. (Remember that, with Republicans holding supermajority control of the legislature, Governor Cooper cannot veto the measure.)

The main objective behind the expanded funding is to clear the waitlist for vouchers. NCSEAA, the state agency that administers the private school voucher program, received roughly 72,000 applications for a voucher for the 2024-2025 school year. Current funding was only sufficient to fund those in “Tier 1” and some in “Tier 2” – two of the four tiers representing lower-income families. The new $500 million in funding will now go to fully fund Tier 2, 3 and 4, the higher-income brackets:

The large majority of the new funding thus goes primarily to families making more than $115,440 per year, and a large chunk goes to those making more than a quarter million per year. (For reference, North Carolina’s median household income was $66,186 in 2022.) This represents a massive redistribution of taxpayer funds to wealthier residents.

Applications for private school vouchers surged this year, as the funding expansion loomed, leading anti-public education critics to crow about “parents fleeing public schools.” Yet this turns out not to be the case. Reports from around the state confirm that many private schools are now requiring all existing students applying for financial aid to also apply for a state voucher, greatly inflating the numbers. As in other states that have expanded private school vouchers, the large majority of voucher applicants are families already in private education, not those switching from public schools.

In the large voucher scheme expansion, Republican lawmakers eliminated further reporting of how many students were “switchers” from public to private education.

The News & Observer also reported on numerous private schools who receive vouchers raising tuition in response: from a 14% hike at Thales Academy to 29% at LifeSpring Academy in Clayton. These tuition increases largely offset, and in many cases exceed, the maximum voucher amount.

A shadowy money-pit

The private school voucher program has been plagued for years with clear and widespread fraud and graft.

Kris Nordstrom, a researcher with the NC Justice Center, extensively reported how many voucher recipient private schools received more voucher money than they had students. Using only publicly reported data, Nordstrom was able to identify millions in voucher money going to “ghost students” who did not seem to exist. Then, WFAE’s education reporter Ann Doss Helms has extensively documented her own kafkaesque journey to physically locate a Charlotte-area private school that has received nearly half a million in taxpayer funds from vouchers. (The school finally sent Helms a bizarre letter accusing her of “stalking.”)

The state agency overseeing the program, NCSEAA, largely does not provide any oversight in the form of accountability or verification. The agency is a check-writing office, without much authority, and even less interest, in investigating that taxpayer funds are used appropriately. If even publicly reported data showed obvious fraud (which remained unresolved by NCSEAA), one only wonders what issues lay beneath the surface. There has been no sign of interest on the part of state lawmakers to investigate fraud in voucher recipient schools.

According to the Office of State Budget and Management, the initial round of voucher funding was expected to drain $200 million from North Carolina’s public school system. It follows that this second major round of funding will increase that amount. As usual, the cost for ideological overreach by far-right lawmakers in gerrymandered seats will be borne by our most vulnerable citizens – the children of North Carolina.

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