• The legislature may pass significant expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in the budget bill
  • Growing public support for school choice is hard to ignore, and so is the failure of arguments decrying the impacts of choice
  • Expanding Opportunity Scholarships would help to remedy shortcomings in public education, make the system truly public, reenergize civil society, and ensure all families can access an education that upholds their values and beliefs

Earlier this year lawmakers in the House and the Senate introduced companion bills (House Bill 823 and Senate Bill 406) to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) significantly. The bills would remove income restrictions for the scholarships, make recipients eligible for awards of up to 90 percent of the state’s per-pupil allocation in the previous year, and base scholarship awards on a sliding scale according to household income (households with lower incomes would receive larger awards than those with higher incomes). While neither bill passed both chambers, it is expected that some version of the bill will be included in the budget bill and presented to Gov. Roy Cooper for review.

Even though school choice and OSP advocates are excited about this development, Gov. Cooper has invested considerable time and political capital (see here and here) trying to fight these developments and rally educators, lawmakers, and parents to oppose Republican efforts to expand the program. The practical and philosophical aspects of school choice and Opportunity Scholarships have been argued over for the past decade. Here are some of the most compelling reasons why expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program is a good idea for parents, policymakers, and all North Carolinians — and why the governor’s criticisms are unwarranted.

Education choice is popular

The May 2023 Civitas Poll found that, when asked who is best suited to determine where a child should attend school, approximately 75 percent of respondents said a “child’s parents or guardians.” In that same poll, 52 percent of respondents supported legislation to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Meanwhile, a September 2020 poll of parental recipients found that over 80 percent said they were satisfied with the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Parents are voting with their feet

Although final annual figures for traditional public school enrollment are not yet available, there were 62,926 fewer students in the second month of classes in the 2022-23 school year compared with the previous year. In contrast, charter school enrollment grew by 8,424 students. In addition, private school enrollment gained 11,457 students, an increase of 9.9 percent over the previous year. Meanwhile enrollment in home schools declined by 7,811 students (4.8 percent), although rather than show a real decline in home schooling, the drop actually stems from the North Carolina Department of Non-Public Education finally updating numbers of closed home schools.[i]

Republican policies are not “choking the life out of public education”

K-12 education budgets have increased for twelve straight years, going from $7.15 billion to $11.14 billion. Per-pupil expenditures have increased from $8,436 (2011-12) to $12,345 (2021-22) — a 46 percent increase.[ii]

Since 2011-12, funding per pupil has increased $1,651 in inflation-adjusted dollars, an increase of 15.4 percent. In addition, per-pupil spending in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2021-22 ($12,345) was higher than the previous high-water mark of 2008-09 ($11,819).[iii]

In 2021-22, the Opportunity Scholarship Program awarded $79.5 million in scholarships. That same year, North Carolina public schools had $16.8 billion in expenditures. Put another way, the Opportunity Scholarship comprised a little less than one-half of one percent (0.47 percent) of all K-12 public school expenditures.[iv]

Contrary to Gov. Cooper’s mantra, private schools receiving Opportunity Scholarship students have vigorous accountability requirements

In addition to answering, first and foremost, to engaged parents choosing them to educate their children, OSP schools are required to follow statutory requirements to ensure that they comply with the same health, safety, and nondiscrimination requirements that public schools must meet. North Carolina state law (G.S. § 115C-562.5) also lists academic and financial requirements for schools that accept Opportunity Scholarship students.

What about public schools? To whom are they accountable?

Accountability in the eyes of most progressives is a top-down affair. Because schools or organizations receive money and support from the government, they argue, the government needs to ensure schools are performing and using money wisely.

Test scores are one very obvious form of public accountability. In 2021-22, however, fewer than half of North Carolina public-school students had test scores that met grade-level proficiency in math and reading. Just 32 percent of public-school students met college and career readiness marks in math, while only 29 percent of students achieved the same in reading. Who is accountable for those scores? Who has been fired or otherwise punished for such dismal results? Measures without consequences for poor results do not equate to accountability. 

The governor’s efforts to slow OSP expansion has failed to gain traction

Ten weeks after Cooper declared a “state of emergency for public education,” only 16 percent of superintendents — 19 in all — have signed on to a letter condemning the proposed expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In addition, only 26 of 117 school boards — just 22 percent — have passed resolutions condemning Republican education policies.[v] 

What is public education?

Critics of school choice frequently assert school choice is an attack on public education. Their argument goes something like this: Choice takes money from the public schools and distributes it to students in private schools. Choice contributes to the privatization of public education.

This thinking falsely assumes public education is defined by the use of public dollars. Let’s remember that public schools readily accept gifts from large corporations like IBM, Apple, Google, and others. They also happily accept grants and gifts from foundations and private individuals. Moreover, they also accept nonpublic funds from the people they serve for extracurricular activities.

As Frederick Hess, senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, noted in a recent opinion piece:

State departments of education and local school districts routinely contract with for-profit firms for books, buses, data systems, technology, and testing — and they pay to place some hard-to-serve students in private settings. Yet these systems are deemed obviously “public” because, well, mostly because we’re used to it. In truth, there’s nothing especially novel about using private partners to provide mentoring or microschools.

Choice opponents assert that public schools are “public” because they’re funded by public tax dollars. OK. Fair enough. But when states adopt charter schools, education savings accounts, or voucher programs, they’re democratically deciding to fund those services with public tax dollars. By that same “public dollars” criteria, such programs certainly qualify as public education.

Is school choice really an attack on  “the common school” ideal? 

School choice critics also sound the alarms about choice programs because, they charge, choice programs erode the notion of the common school. The common school ideal emerged out of the 1840s and asserted that state-provided public education was necessary to educate an increasingly diverse set of students, mold them into citizens, and teach them democratic ideals.

While the common school ideal may be laudable, such thinking ignores its shortcomings. Public school values are equated with secular values. These are asserted to be neutral, but they are anything but. Many public schools necessarily instill in students a secular, progressive view of education at odds with values held in common by many families and groups across North Carolina. Whether it be Critical Race Theory, gender identity, a one-sided or incomplete teaching of American history, or something else, the never-ending, contentious battles between school districts and dissenting families have propelled school choice and the parents’ rights movement.

These developments also underscore another truth: our society is filled with a diversity of perspectives on education, what it is for, how we should think about it, and how best to deliver it. Traditionalists, Secularists, and Progressives — indeed, Americans from all walks of life — answer these questions differently. Individual schools have been started and even entire school systems formed in hopes of providing distinct answers to these questions.

This reality is a boon for education, not a problem. Public education in many other Western countries such as the Netherlands and England support a variety of nonstate institutions with different views on education and different religious and cultural values.

A way forward

Is public education truly public if it excludes certain viewpoints? Shouldn’t public education truly mean educational pluralism and support diverse populations and institutions that reflect a wide variety of beliefs and commitments?

That’s exactly the solution. Ashley Berner Rogers, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, offers a way out of these perpetual conflicts when she writes in “The Case for Educational Pluralism”:

 Educational pluralism offers a way out of these conflicts—over what education is for, who the child is, and what role teachers and schools should play—since it refuses to privilege one view over another. Instead of progressive and traditionalist educators competing for ideological dominance, they can populate and influence schools that want their particular approach. Instead of pretending to be ideologically neutral, public schooling could offer parents a variety of choices that reflect their beliefs and their children’s pedagogical needs. In short, educational pluralism opens up this conversation in a way that purported neutrality and uniformity cannot.

North Carolina celebrates and respects individual freedom and values a diversity of beliefs and ideas. The importance of those freedoms and values is written in our state constitution.

If we truly embrace those ideals, shouldn’t public schools also represent a full variety of educational, cultural, social, and religious values? 

Choice is a quality that is already embedded into our educational system and our way of life. Most health care providers allow their insured to choose their own doctor. Those who have government housing vouchers have the option to choose where they want to live. NC Pre-K offers North Carolina parents the opportunity to choose the type (public or private) of early learning provider for parents. Moreover, North Carolina and the federal government both provide education dollars to allow students to attend the public or private higher education institution of their choice.

Why do we not allow parents of kindergarten through 12th grade students the same rights other parents have? 

Expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship is an effective way to help remedy these problems. It meets the demand for more choice in education while also broadening the concept of public education. In so doing, it can show that government can fund and administer public education, but it can also show that education can be effectively delivered by nongovernmental entities and help to ameliorate the unending conflicts between schools and parents over education and the cultural and religious values with which people use to define it. These changes would readily benefit families, students, schools, and communities and comprise a growing list of compelling reasons policymakers have to do the right thing.

[i] Since final figures for 2022-23 year are not yet available, numbers provided are from the second month of official classes. Charter school enrollment is from North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Enrollment figures for home schools and private schools are from North Carolina Department of Non-Public Education.

[ii] Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget, 2023, NC Statistical Profile Online, and author’s calculations.

[iii] NC Statistical Profile Online and author’s calculations. See also Dr. Robert Luebke, “Cooper’s State of Emergency for Public Education: Just Throwing More Against the Wall,” John Locke Foundation Research Brief, July 5, 2023, https://www.johnlocke.org/coopers-state-of-emergency-for-public-education-just-throwing-more-against-the-wall.

[iv] State Education Assistance Authority and North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and author’s calculations.

[v] Press release, “As Republican Budget Debacle Continues, More School Boards Express Opposition to Extreme Plans to Dismantle Public Education,” Office of Gov. Roy Cooper, July 19, 2023, https://governor.nc.gov/news/press-releases/2023/07/19/republican-budget-debacle-continues-more-school-boards-express-opposition-extreme-plans-dismantle.