State education leaders say school voucher expansion won’t prompt public school exodus

By: - May 31, 2023 7:00 pm
an empty classroom

A new report indicates North Carolina’s school voucher program may be fraught with corruption. Photo: Getty Images

An expansion of the state’s school voucher program to include all families regardless of income isn’t likely to cause an exodus of  students from traditional public schools, NC Department of Public Instruction officials said Wednesday.

Jamey Falkenbury

That statement is based on what research shows has happened in other states that allow wealthy families access to school voucher programs, said Jamey Falkenbury, director of government affairs for NCDPI and the State Board of Education.

An Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) analysis released earlier this month estimates that state funding to public schools would decrease by $203.8 million if 50% of new voucher recipients leave public schools to attend private ones.

“Just from the research that we’ve done and from what we’ve seen in other states, we don’t know if that’s typically what’s going to happen,” Falkenbury said.

In Arizona, Falkenbury said there was a 4% increase in the number of new public schools students who used vouchers to attend private schools after that state expanded eligibility.

“Not the 25% to 75% projections in the OSBM report,” Falkenbury said.

The Arizona Mirror reported in September that 75% of that state’s new applicants for school vouchers had never attended a public school. Although, the program grew from 12,000 to 55,000 in one school year, not all students who received vouchers came from public schools.

“What we’re seeing in trends across the country is the overwhelming amount of funds that this goes toward is in private schools already,” Falkenbury said.

In addition, Falkenbury said many of North Carolina’s private schools have waitlists and would not have the capacity to accommodate large numbers of new students. He believes most families like their public schools and will stay in them.

“It will be interesting over the next two years to see how many students leave public schools to access these funds,” he said.

According to the NC Sate Education Assistance Authority, which administers the state’s “Opportunity Scholarships,” the state awarded 17,012 school vouchers this year. Only 10,089 of the awards were accepted and 9,061 students used them to enroll in private schools. Students were eligible for awards of up to $6,492.

If Senate Bill 406 becomes law, to state’s wealthiest families could access the school voucher program to help pay for private schools and spending on private school vouchers would steadily increase until it reaches $500 million by the 2031-32 school year.

School voucher critics contend that the private schools that receive taxpayer money engage in religious indoctrination and exclusion, discriminate against LGBTQ students and parents, and are not held accountable for academic outcomes the way charter schools and traditional public school are. Vouchers also divert money and other resources from already underfunded public schools, the critics contend.

“Their private school voucher scheme will pour your tax money into private schools that are unaccountable to the public and can decide which students they won’t to keep out,” Gov. Roy Cooper said last week. “They want to expand private school so that anyone, even a millionaire, can get taxpayer money for their children’s private academy tuition.”

The Opportunity Scholarship Program was created in 2013 to help low-income families send children to private schools and religious schools. Conservative lawmakers who back the program argue that parents deserve to send their children to schools that best meet their needs.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.