Voters Reject Paying for Religious Instruction

February 4, 2022

From the Carolina Forward Research team

New Carolina Forward polling on education continues to show North Carolinians’ deep, broad, and bipartisan support for public education – not sectarian instruction. Voters continue to overwhelmingly oppose spending public funds to pay for students to attend religious private schools. This polling also confirmed that while recent school staff shortages have hit parents hardest, both parents and non-parents alike identify COVID and state lawmakers primarily responsible for those shortages.

Vouchers for Religious Schools Still Unpopular

North Carolina voters unambiguously oppose spending public funds to fund student tuition to religious private schools, which is the core of the state’s so-called “Opportunity Scholarships” program. A broad consensus of voters that includes nearly every type of respondent group expresses net opposition to such a voucher program. Only half of Republican respondents themselves supported the idea. These results align well with previous Carolina Forward polling showing North Carolina residents consistent rejection of efforts to privatize public schools through the charter system.

“Kids” = Respondents with children in K-12 schooling in their household. “No Kids” = those without.

The overwhelming majority of schools that receive funds from North Carolina’s “Opportunity Scholarships” program are sectarian. As of 2018, NC State researchers found that 76% of schools participating in the program, who constituted 91% of students enrolled, were sectarian, and all but 8 were Christian. In a 2017 survey of the curricula used by recipient schools, researchers found that more than three quarters of voucher funds went to schools with a “literal biblical worldview.” Those curricula included lessons teaching children that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, rejecting the theory of evolution, and lessons against homosexuality, adultery and “fornication” - in other words, sectarian religious instruction.

Educators nationwide await a US Supreme Court decision about the voucher system in Maine that may make it impossible for states to operate voucher systems that exclude religious schools. This would be the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions heading in that direction. North Carolina's voucher programs have never disqualified religious private schools, but it is clearly a sticking point with many voters. Public distaste for funding religious instruction with taxpayer money has historically been strong enough across the country that thirty-seven states, including many of the nation's most politically conservative, have so-called Blaine Amendments in their constitutions to prevent it. With 46 percent of independent voters strongly opposed, it would appear that voucher advocates have not yet been very persuasive on this issue outside core Republican constituencies.

COVID, State Lawmakers to Blame for School Shortages

In many places in the past year, there have simply not been enough school teachers, especially special education teachers, to meet pressing needs. Teachers are hardly the only critical shortage, either:  bus drivers, substitutes, teaching assistants, food services, custodial workers, and other staffing areas have all been in short supply at various times in North Carolina's schools.

These findings show, predictably, that these shortages have affected parents' lives the most:  nearly two-thirds of respondents with children in K-12 schools reported being personally affected, versus only one sixth of respondents without:

“Kids” = Respondents with children in K-12 schooling in their household. “No Kids” = those without.

Next, in terms of who or what is most responsible for the shortages, parents and non-parents were in close agreement. The most common response from both groups was that COVID is mostly responsible for the shortage, followed by state lawmakers as the second-most held responsible. In fact, COVID was the top answer from all groups except Republican voters, for whom “teachers unions” was the most common response, and among independent voters, where state lawmakers "led" the way by eight percentage points over COVID.

“Kids” = Respondents with children in K-12 schooling in their household. “No Kids” = those without.

One takeaway from these findings is the effectiveness of nationalized Republican party messaging to its base, particularly about “teachers unions.” Among Republican respondents, “teachers unions” was the group most identified as to blame for school staffing shortages. The problem? Here in North Carolina, teachers unions do not exist.

North Carolina is one of a handful of states in the country that bans all collective bargaining by public employees, like police, firefighters, civil servants - or teachers. This ban has existed for many decades, and is the reason why teachers unions do not exist in our state. Nevertheless, right-wing activists have continued to wage a dishonest campaign lying to the public about them.

In total, voters overall believe that COVID itself is mostly to blame for the schools' staffing difficulties. Beyond that, we see clear evidence that the public has noticed the failure of the state legislature to be a good steward for our state's public schools.

These findings are strongly consistent with past polling demonstrating voters' belief that teachers are not paid fairly, their preference for raising corporate taxes to invest in schools, and asserting that education investment is a higher priority than personal income tax cuts. Voters can see for themselves how years of under investment have affected our schools' ability to respond to the pandemic and the struggles it has brought to students and parents.

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