by Dr. Robert Luebke
Senior Fellow, Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The News & Observer recently ran an editorial that added yet another chapter in the paper’s ongoing hate-fest against the popular Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a voucher program that provides mostly low- and moderate-income children a chance at a better education at a private school of their choice. Of course, since it’s their paper, N&O editors can take whatever stances they like. However, merely repeating falsehoods and misrepresentations is not a compelling argument. The claims need to be reviewed. But where do we begin?
A common complaint of opponents of the OSP is to say that the program lacks accountability. But does it? In addition to complying with all health, safety, and nondiscrimination requirements, schools that accept OSP students are also required to meet certain academic and financial requirements. Once a year, OSP schools are required to administer a nationally standardized test to all voucher students. Academic progress and test results are shared with parents, and results must also be forwarded to the agency that administers OSP. Each OSP school that receives more than $300,000 in tuition revenue must conduct a financial review and have the results forwarded to a state office.
N&O editors err because they base their statements on a narrow, top-down definition of accountability. Accountability comes in more than one form. Peer institutions as well as local or regional accrediting agencies are two ways to help maintain academic quality and ensure accountability.
The truth, however, is that ultimately, parents — not the state — are the ones who hold the schools accountable. Because parents select the schools for their children, OSP schools must be responsive to the needs of the children and parents. If the schools aren’t, then families leave and take tuition revenue — the lifeblood of many private schools — with them. This accountability is an ever-present reality for many private schools and something many public schools just ignore.
Editors frequently dismiss OSP as “controversial.” The editorial stated OSP is supported by “primarily Republicans.” This is simply not true. A January 2021 Civitas Poll found respondents overwhelmingly supported OSP by a margin of 66 percent to 25 percent. OSP has enjoyed support levels in the low- to mid-sixties for years.
Not only is that support deep, but it’s also wide. When divided by political registration, support for OSP remained strong across all political parties. Republicans supported OSP by a margin of 71 percent to 23 percent; Democrats by 61 percent to 31 percent. Those registered as unaffiliated supported OSP by a margin of 68 percent to 22 percent.
Support crosses racial boundaries as well. While whites supported the Opportunity Scholarship Program 67 percent to 26 percent, African Americans supported the Opportunity Scholarship Program by a margin of 71 percent to 19 percent.
One of the favorite criticisms of editors is that OSP robs the public schools of funding. Editors claim OSP has diverted millions in funding away from the public schools and contributed to their underfunding. Specifically, they say that since the beginning of the program, $150 million has been diverted. Since 2015, the first year of the program, North Carolina has spent $63.12 billion in General Fund appropriations on K-12 public education. Over the same time, money spent on OSP equates to 0.00238 percent — that is not quite 24 one-hundredths of one percent — of the money North Carolina has spent on K-12 public education.
In addition to accusing them of robbing financial resources from the public schools, editors accuse schools of using OSP funds to indoctrinate students with biblical worldviews at Christian schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students. OSP opponents should remember vouchers go to the parent. The parent chooses the school. That a high percentage of schools happen to be Christian is a function of parental choice, not state action. The parents of LGBTQ students are just as free to use OSP vouchers at schools of their choice as Christian parents.
It is important to remember that actions taken by the schools the editors accuse of “discrimination” are also legal. The N&O editors did note later in the article that private schools can claim exemption to Title IX “to the extent that the application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”
These ongoing clashes highlight a significant problem with public education that is at the core of the school choice argument: the way public education is funded and delivered in the United States. In the U.S., the government funds, regulates, and delivers public education. The reality is schools address deeply personal needs and are asked to cultivate social values and civic ideals and transmit culture. These realities reflect deep differences within our society. Yet the state is not neutral.
According to Ashley Berner and Pluralism in American School Systems, most of the world’s democracies support school systems in which the state funds and regulates schools but does not deliver instruction. Those systems allow parents to choose a school that reflects their views and meets the child’s needs. In other words, nonreligious and religious schools are funded as well as schools that represent different educational and social philosophies. Again, that’s a reality in many countries of the world, but not the United States.
The editors share with us repeatedly their concern for the poor and minorities and their need to access quality education. OSP successfully addresses those combined concerns. High marks from parents and steady gains in enrollment are signs that OSP is meeting a need for students and families. Yet the war on OSP continues. Editors can keep voicing their concern for the poor; however, their support for the education establishment over needy children says more than any editorial. It’s yet another example of the progressive left working against the very people they claim to help. And this hypocrisy is on full display.