Opportunity Scholarship program works well for low-income and working class families

By NC Representative Paul Stam

Raleigh, NC –  In July 2015 the North Carolina Supreme Court issued an opinion declaring the Opportunity Scholarship program to be constitutional.

Opportunity ScholarshipsThere is strong interest and support for this scholarship program that allows low-income and working class families to send their children to the private school of their choice. A recent study (June 2015) by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice shows strong support nationally for school choice. Support for Opportunity Scholarships (vouchers) was strong with 61% in favor (33% opposed). The study shows significant support across age groups, political affiliation, areas of the country and parental status.

A more recent poll by the Civitas Institute (March 2015) also shows substantial North Carolina support for the Opportunity Scholarship program. Participants were asked the following question: “The Opportunity Scholarship Grant program in North Carolina was passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor in July of 2013. The legislation provides eligible low-income students with vouchers of up to $4,200 to attend the school of their choice. Do you favor or oppose the Opportunity Scholarship program?” Overall 68% supported the program (24% opposed) with strong support across multiple demographics, including all parties, races and regions.

During the 2014-15 school year Opportunity Scholarships were awarded to 1,200 students attending 224 private schools. Over 1,100 of these students have reapplied, joining 4,350 new eligible applicants for the 2015-16 school year. In 2014-15 $10.8 million was appropriated for the program. Scholarships worth $5 million were awarded to students. For 2015-16 school year, the Senate and House budgets each propose $17.6 million for scholarships that would serve about 4,400 students. Over 1,000 students would remain on the waitlist so another $4 million is urgently needed for 2015-16.

Since the North Carolina Supreme Court opinion was issued many opponents have kept up a steady drumbeat of inaccurate information and fallacious arguments. Here are just a few:

Opponents say:  The Opportunity Scholarship program will destroy public schools.

Counterpoint:  I am a strong supporter of traditional public schools. This is not an anti-public school initiative. It is an initiative that supports parents’ right to choose the best educational setting for their child, regardless of address, income, political affiliation or race. Parents should have the right to decide whether a traditional public school, public charter school, private school or home school is the best choice for their child. Parents have a choice where to send their child for pre-K and child care programs and they have a choice of which community college or public or private university best serves their child. North Carolina residents who attend 35 private colleges and universities are eligible for state support totaling $86.4 million/year.

Another study by the Friedman Foundation (April 2013) found 23 empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools. Six empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers. All six find that school choice saves money for taxpayers. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact. Competition works in education just as it does in the provision of groceries or dining.

Opponents say: The Opportunity Scholarship program will take money away from traditional public schools.

Counterpoint:  From 2010-11 thru 2014-15, the state and county appropriation per pupil funding increased from approximately $6,950 to $7,425. The maximum amount for an Opportunity Scholarship is $4,200. The Opportunity Scholarship program saves taxpayers money.

If a student leaves a public school to attend a non-public school the public school does lose the funding for that student.  However, it no longer incurs the expense of educating that student. As a result the per student funding is slightly higher – not lower.

Opponents say:  Private schools are not required to take the same tests required of the public schools.

Counterpoint:  I am puzzled by this argument. Those who make this point are often the ones who state opposition to these tests in public schools. I don’t understand why they would want to require private schools to take the same tests that they oppose in public schools.

Private schools that participate in the Opportunity Scholarship program are required to administer a nationally normed test. The results are open to inspection by a representative of the Governor. The aggregate graduation rates and test scores from the nationally normed tests will be evaluated.  State End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests traditional public schools are required to take are not nationally normed tests.

Opponents say:  Public money should not be given to religiously affiliated private schools.

Counterpoint:  The money goes to the parent who chooses the school. This is not new public policy. For decades, public money has been provided to students at religiously affiliated pre-K and child care programs as well as students at religiously affiliated colleges and universities.  This type of funding has been upheld by federal and state courts time and time again.

Opponents say:  Public tax money should not be given to parents who send their children to private schools.

Counterpoint:  Parents of students who receive Opportunity Scholarships are also taxpayers.

Opponents say:  $4,200 is not enough money to send low income students to elite private academies.

Counterpoint: The average private school tuition in North Carolina is about $6,000. Most have tuition below that figure. Many private schools offer scholarship programs based upon need and will waive the remaining tuition to Opportunity Scholarship students. We never claimed that the program would pay the exorbitant tuition at elite schools. An excellent private education can be had in Raleigh, North Carolina for $5,300/year. Many parents who cannot afford to pay $5,300 will be able to pay $1,100/year.

Opponents say:  There is no accountability for student performance in private schools.

Counterpoint:  There is accountability in that a nationally normed test must be administered. More importantly, the parents hold the school accountable. If they are happy with the performance of the school, they stay; if they aren’t, they withdraw their children. The aggregate graduation rates and test scores from the nationally normed tests will be evaluated.

Recently the National Merit Scholarship winners were announced. In the Triangle, 7 of the 21 students attended a private school. Private school students account for 6% of the student population and produced 33% of the National Merit Scholarship awardees in the Triangle. They must be doing something right.

Opponents say:  The private schools that accept the Opportunity Scholarships don’t have to be accredited.

Counterpoint:  There is no requirement for a K-12 public or private school to be accredited. Some private and some public schools choose to seek accreditation. There is no correlation between accreditation and school performance in either sector.

Opponents say:  Public schools are only going to be left with low income, low achieving, disadvantaged children and special needs children, and all of the others are going to private schools.

Counterpoint:  This statement does not make sense. This will not happen because of the Opportunity Scholarship program.

The scholarship program serves students of low-income, working class families. If they choose to participate in the scholarship program they will be the ones leaving public schools. The Special Needs Scholarship program serves over 700 special needs students out of a total special needs population of approximately 200,000 students.

North Carolinians want students to be able to attend the school of their choice regardless of address, political affiliation, age, income, or race. I will work to expand funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program this legislative session so more parents can choose the right educational setting for their children. I hope that families will take advantage of the program and continue to apply for the upcoming school year.

Information on the Opportunity Scholarship program is available on the State Education Assistance Authority’s website, as well as at this North Carolina school choice site. Families may also contact the SEAA at 855-330-3955 (toll-free).  For a PowerPoint explaining the program, visit this link.