by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
School choice is expanding across the United States as never before. Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, West Virginia, and Florida have all approved programs to give families in those states a full range of educational options. So what’s changed?
In the early days of the school choice movement, choice offered a way out for kids stuck in difficult circumstances or in failing schools — a way for a caring society to give a helping hand to disadvantaged kids. States created means-tested voucher programs and Education Savings Account (ESA) programs to serve low-income and special-needs students.
Governmental and school-board responses to the pandemic changed all that. Closed classrooms, virtual learning, and politicized curricula increased parental frustration. Parents from all incomes and political backgrounds were seeing the advantages of increasing educational options for students. Pandemic policies “democratized” parental frustration.
Opinion polls reflected these changing sentiments. A June 2022 national poll found support for school choice among respondents had increased from 64 percent to 72 percent between 2020 and 2022, an increase of 8 percentage points. The Civitas Poll tracks a similar increase in popularity among school choice programs in North Carolina, with support for the Opportunity Scholarship Program increasing 7 percentage points over the last year and charter schools gaining 10 points over the same time period.
New legislation before the North Carolina Senate would be a game-changer for concerned parents. Sens. Michael Lee, Amy Galey, and Lisa Barnes, all chairs or co-chairs of influential Senate education committees, introduced Senate Bill 406 to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program to all North Carolina schoolchildren. Under SB 406 as filed, every child attending or eligible to attend a North Carolina public school would be eligible for an Opportunity Scholarship, which provides state government funding to families below established income thresholds to use for private school tuition or related educational expenses.
The legislation would remove the program’s income eligibility requirements and replace them with a system that awards scholarships based on a sliding scale. Household income would still determine the size of the scholarship awarded, and the plan would ensure that needy families would still continue to receive the largest scholarships.
Along with opening eligibility to Opportunity Scholarships, the bill would require schools to offer a new sequence of high school courses to allow students to graduate in three years. Also, for students who graduate early from high school, it would create a scholarship for two semesters of study in a postsecondary institution. The amount of the scholarship would be determined annually by available funds and by the Office of State Education Assistance Authority, the agency that administers the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
The following table shows how Opportunity Scholarship awards would be made under SB 406, depending upon family income level:
|Household Income Level||Household Income Limits (Family of Four)||Scholarship Formula||Maximum Scholarship Amount (FY 2023-24)|
|Below or up to the maximum amount required to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program (FRL)||Up to $55,000||100% of the average state per-pupil allocation from the prior fiscal year||$7,213|
|100% to 200% of the FRL threshold||Up to $111,000||90% of the average state per-pupil allocation from the prior fiscal year||$6,492|
|200% to 450% of the FRL threshold||Up to $249,750||60% of the average state per-pupil allocation from the prior fiscal year||$4,328|
|Above 450% of the FRL threshold||Over $249,750||45% of the average state per-pupil allocation from the prior fiscal year||$3,246|
As the table shows, children in households with annual incomes at or below the amount to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program — about $55,000 for a family of four — would receive up to 100 percent of the average state per-pupil allocation from the previous year. The maximum award in 2023-24 would be $7,213. Progressively lower scholarship amounts would be available for students from higher household income levels.
These are challenging times. Students are struggling academically. Only 35 percent of our 4th graders and 25 percent of our 8th graders are proficient in math. Outcomes from pandemic policies have also underscored the reality that all students are different and learn differently. Not all students thrive in the same environment — which is even more reason for parents to be able to choose the best educational option for their child.
In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed parents’ inherent right to direct their child’s education and upbringing. By expanding school choice options, states strengthen the rights of parents to carry out those duties. Some parents will choose the local public schools and be satisfied. For others, those schools will not be a good fit.
If we’re truly committed to all students, shouldn’t we have an educational system that allows all parents to make the best educational choices for their children — not just hope to live in a good school district or the right zip code?
For those concerned about whether Opportunity Scholarships lack accountability and “drain money from the public schools,” as critics charge, look at the facts. Recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship are required to comply with all health, safety, and nondiscrimination requirements that public schools must meet, along with meeting certain academic and financial requirements. In addition, once a year schools are required to administer nationally standardized tests to all OSP students and have the results forwarded to the State Education Assistance Authority.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program was first approved in 2013, and while critics have been saying the “sky is falling” for the past decade, public school budgets have increased every year since 2011. In addition, total per-pupil expenditures (local, state, and federal) have increased from $8,514 in 2013 to $12,345 in 2022. Do those numbers signify a public school system in financial decline?
Finally, parents — not the state — are really the ultimate source of accountability. Because parents are the ones who choose the schools, the schools know they must work hard to be responsive to parental concerns. If the schools aren’t, the students — and the tuition they bring — will go elsewhere.
North Carolina needs more school choice. Lawmakers are right to consider expanding a growing and popular program. Emboldened by a healthy increase (7 percentage points) in public support for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, lawmakers are right to consider expanding a growing and popular program. These trendlines are a resounding affirmation of the program. SB 406 would be a huge step to empower parents to give greater educational options to their children. It’s also a compelling reason why lawmakers should give the legislation serious consideration.