• Gov. Cooper is warning others to oppose the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program because he thinks private schools lack accountability
  • Schools with Opportunity Scholarship students must comply with various statutory provisions to enhance academic and financial transparency
  • Most importantly, the schools who enroll Opportunity Scholarship students are accountable to the parents of those children, and only by continuing to serve students’ academic and social needs and model values supported by parents and the local community will they continue to be entrusted with their education

Gov. Roy Cooper has made it his mantra: private schools lack accountability. He repeats it frequently, usually within the context of his opposition to the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). There are two problems here for Gov. Cooper. First, the statement is not true. Second, repeating it will not make it true. 

Like most other things, accountability comes in different forms. In this case, accountability has a public, top-down version usually advocated by progressives, and a private, bottom-up version usually pushed by conservatives and libertarians.  

Accountability, according to 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 the money wisely.

Accountability, simply stated, is the means to ensure government policies are working and goals are being met. Oversight and regulation are the means to ensure that the nearly $17 billion in state, federal, and local funding that North Carolina spends on schools is properly spent.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and various educational boards and agencies are the administrative legacy of progressivism.

The accountability apparatus includes, among other things, a bevy of tests. EOGs and EOCs, the NAEP, SATs, ACTs, and school report cards are some of the indicators used to evaluate progress and hold schools accountable.

A quick review of some of the major indicators paints a discouraging picture. Less than 50 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 are proficient in math or reading. Only 41 percent of those who took the ACT met the minimum admission requirements to the University of North Carolina. According to recent NAEP scores, the percentage of students proficient in 4th and 8th grade math and reading is in the twenties. In the 2022-23 school year, 42 percent of schools received a D or F grade for school report cards.

Test results and other school metrics are a very public part of the accountability structure. Does anyone think those scores are acceptable? Regrettably, they’re not a brief hiccup. Test scores have been flat for years. So parents and the public rightfully ask: where’s the accountability? The structure of accountability may be there, but when problems persist, can anyone honestly say schools are accountable? 

Cooper claims that private schools lack accountability

They may lack the progressive view of accountability, but private schools are accountable. How?

What does private school accountability look like? For starters, it’s more substantive than what you’ve been led to believe. Let’s remember private schools must comply with the same health, safety, and nondiscrimination statutes that public schools must meet. For example, if a school that enrolls Opportunity Scholarship students violates a nondiscrimination statute or regulation, the school must notify parents that the school is no longer eligible to receive OSP funds.

Schools that enroll OSP students are also required to meet academic and financial requirements laid out in the North Carolina state statutes (see G.S. § 115C-562.5).

For example, OSP schools are required to provide parents/guardians with an annual written explanation of the student’s academic progress, including the student’s scores on standardized achievement tests. OSP schools are required to administer a nationally standardized test — or an equivalent test — annually in specific subject areas for grades K–8 and also grades 9–12. Test results must be submitted to the state annually. Schools are also required to report the graduation rates of OSP students as well.

In addition, schools that enroll more than 25 OSP students are required to report the aggregate standardized test score performance of OSP students. On the financial side, schools that enroll 70 or more OSP students are required to contract with a certified public accountant for an annual financial review.

In addition to the statutory requirements, private schools also have parental accountability. Parents — not the state — provide the ultimate accountability. They are the ones who find out if the schools work and if schools are responsive to their child’s academic, social, and emotional needs. If parents doesn’t like what’s going on in the classroom, they simply take their child out of the school and go elsewhere. That same option doesn’t exist in many public schools.

Our courts have upheld what we’ve long known as a culture: parents should have the right to direct the education and moral upbringing of children (see, e.g., the 1925 Supreme Court decision in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters). Because no one is more invested and committed to the success of a child than a parent, it makes sense to empower parents and affirm parental rights.

So do private schools lack accountability? If so, why do over 115,000 students enroll in North Carolina’s private schools? Why has private school enrollment increased 10 percent in North Carolina since the pandemic?

Do policymakers really think parents have no recourse and would sit idly by while schools ignore parents’ concerns? If Gov. Cooper really believed private schools lack accountability, why did he send his daughter to one?

The truth is, private schools are fully accountable in every way. They also have a different and more direct form of accountability than public schools. That Cooper and others who oppose school choice and the Opportunity Scholarship Program refuse to acknowledge this accountability doesn’t change the truth.