- Republican budget writers are planning massive increases for the state’s school voucher program
- School vouchers are incredibly unpopular with voters
- Even after a decade, demand for vouchers is low and the program cannot use the dollars is already receives
As the 2023-2024 state budget process revs up in Raleigh, opponents of public schools have renewed their offensive. This year’s assault on the education system is sobering: Republican bill sponsors in both the North Carolina House and Senate have proposed diverting massive taxpayer resources – as much as $1.5 billion dollars – to the state’s private school voucher program, instead of traditional public schools. The exact amounts are under negotiation in different House, Senate and House budget bills under consideration, but all represent a massive increase in voucher funding, with nowhere near the same increase for public schools.
The large-scale expansion of our state’s private school voucher system is a body blow to public schools that are reeling from years of underinvestment, particularly at a moment when COVID-era emergency funds are sunsetting. Yet this is exactly why they’re being proposed at this moment: as a means of inflicting maximum damage against the traditional public school system which serves the vast majority of North Carolina’s children. It is an intentional effort to cripple schools in the pursuit of the far-right’s ideological goal of dismantling American public education.
What are vouchers?
North Carolina’s private school voucher system, formed in 2013 by Republican lawmakers under the misleading name “Opportunity Scholarships,” works by providing special taxpayer-funded vouchers that families can use to pay private school tuition. According to the NC State Education Assistance Authority, which oversees the program, 544 private schools currently receive vouchers through the program. Nearly all participating private schools are religious, and the vast majority of those (though not all) are Christian. Altogether, those 544 schools will receive nearly $132 million in taxpayer-funded vouchers in the 2022-2023 school year.
The “Opportunity Scholarship” voucher program has drawn criticism since its inception for its lax school qualification criteria. There are effectively no educational requirements or standards that private schools receiving vouchers must meet, nor qualifications for the teachers who work in them. In fact, one review of North Carolina private school voucher recipients’ curricula found that more than 75% of funds went to schools that promoted a “literal Biblical worldview.” Those curricula included lessons teaching children that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, rejecting the theory of evolution, lessons against homosexuality, adultery and “fornication,” as well as the idea that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. (They did not.)
When asked, North Carolina voters are very clear: a vast majority of voters opposes the basic premise of voucher programs.
By statute, voucher-recipient schools are also free to discriminate against students based on religious affiliation, sexual orientation or disability, and many do. It is perfectly legal for a school receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers to deny entry to non-Christian (or non-Muslim, non-Jewish, non-atheist, etc.) children, or to LGBTQ ones, or those with a learning disability. Few such schools offer the support to students with disabilities that public schools are required by law to provide, largely because such support can be quite expensive.
Who attends private schools with vouchers?
North Carolina's voucher program caters to a relatively tiny number of students. In the 2022-2023 school year, there were a total of 25,377 student recipients of "Opportunity Scholarship" vouchers, compared to over 1.4 million total students enrolled in traditional public schools. The large majority of voucher recipients are white (61%), while the majority of traditional public school students in our state are non-white. (In case you're wondering, only 115,311 total students attend private schools in North Carolina - approximately 8% of the number that attend traditional public schools.) The overwhelming majority of children in North Carolina attend traditional public schools, and that is extremely unlikely to ever change.
When North Carolina's voucher program was launched, it was promoted as serving low-income students by capping family eligibility by household income - lower-income households were eligible for more voucher money than higher-income ones. That has changed, however. In 2016, 2021 and 2022 budgets, the income level for eligibility was gradually raised, until now families making over $100,000 are still eligible. Several Republican lawmakers have now proposed eliminating the income caps entirely, and making vouchers available for even wealthier families.
One possible reason: the "Opportunity Scholarship" program cannot use all its budget, due to tepid demand.
In every year of its existence, demand for "Opportunity Scholarship" vouchers has been less than the amount of money allocated for them. The program has leftover funds every single year, and often considerable amounts: $20 million, in 2020-2021. In fact, in 2021, Republican lawmakers even added $500,000 to the program to pay for a marketing campaign to "sell" more families on the program.
Interestingly: those marketing campaign dollars were largely outsourced to a Republican-aligned special interest non-profit group called "Parents for Educational Freedom," which lobbies the legislature for... more vouchers. In other words, taxpayer funds are being used to pay for the salaries and staff of a right-wing organization solely dedicated to weakening North Carolina's school system for its own benefit. This year, some Republican lawmakers in the state house want to increase that funding to $5 million.
All for a voucher program that, nearly a decade after inception, cannot attract more than a tiny number of interested families.
Take our schools seriously
North Carolina's public schools have serious problems, largely stemming from the broad failure - which some say is a deliberate strategy - by state lawmakers to adequately resource them. Our state's funding for public schools ranks among the lowest in the nation, and literally the lowest as a percentage of our state's GDP. Most county school systems are desperate to recruit teachers and staff, and provide basic services like busing, with the meager resources they are provided. The solution - the Leandro Plan - is extremely well-known, vetted, exhaustively researched and available. Lawmakers have simply chosen not to embrace it.
Choosing to deploy billions in funding for a voucher program that the vast majority of North Carolina's families do not want, while the schools that majority depends upon suffer, is not just misguided - it is cruel. But it is equally revealing of some lawmakers' commitment to a far-right ideological crusade to divest the government from public education entirely. As always, however, it is up to voters to decide what to do about it.