Private school scholarships have surged to the forefront of debate about education accountability and spending. Nationally, media reports highlighted new research, showing scholarship students in Louisiana and Indiana reversed early learning losses. Such news surely stunned opponents, who had cited these programs as failures. In North Carolina, leaders sparred over the future of our state’s scholarships for low-income students, known as Opportunity Scholarships. Topping the list of opponents’ claims? Scholarships siphon money from public schools and they’re unaccountable to the public.
Recent action from North Carolina lawmakers ought to quell these concerns. The 2017 Legislative Session budget fully funds expected public school growth and raises teacher pay. It also funds Opportunity Scholarship expansion and ensures greater Program accountability. The product of a majority override following a gubernatorial veto, the new budget took effect July 1.
Here’s the real headline, then, on scholarships in our state: The Opportunity Scholarship Program is funded, accountable, and stronger than ever. The budget locks in multi-year expansion at $44.8 million for 10,700 scholarships in 2018-19, and $54.8 million for 13,100 scholarships in 2019-20.
Test-based accountability is on its way. This spring independent researchers began an evaluation comparing the performance, on the same test, of North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship students with similar public school students. Results are expected this fall.
A task force, established in the budget, will study “the most effective, valid, and reliable method” of evaluating scholarship students’ learning. Task force members will represent the state’s diverse K-12 stakeholders, including public and private school leaders, independent researchers, private school organizations, and our own organization, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. Recommendations are due to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee next March.
What do supportive lawmakers see that our governor and other scholarship opponents overlook? Hope can’t wait. Thousands of families know the Opportunity Scholarship Program is working. They need it now. Where’s the proof? Popularity is at record levels. Since the Opportunity Scholarship Program launched four years ago, families have submitted nearly 34,000 applications; over 10,000 applications have come in from families just since February.
Charlotte resident Lena Boyd represents one of these new families. A 2017-18 Opportunity Scholarship recipient, Lena is the adoptive parent of 2nd grade and 4th grade boys. Both boys will attend Charlotte’s Male Leadership Academy this fall using an Opportunity Scholarship. Lena says, “This scholarship affords me the chance to give [the boys] the best education possible, despite what they face with the learning curve of ADHD.” She adds, “I know personally what it feels like to watch children struggle and then be given hope.”
Struggle turns to hope: It’s a theme we hear often from Opportunity Scholarship parents. Fortunately, leaders at many state private schools, who do not want to see hope deferred, have stepped up to open their doors to low-income scholarship students. In 2016-17 nearly half of all North Carolina private schools enrolled scholarship students. Participating schools represent a range of tuition price points. How do higher-tuition schools do it? They offer families financial aid or set “flexible” or “indexed” tuition from a range of rates, based on parents’ ability to pay; aid is in addition to the Opportunity Scholarship amount, capped at $4,200.
Private schools are working hard to serve some of our state’s most disadvantaged students. They’re making the Opportunity Scholarship Program stronger. Lawmakers have ensured the Program is funded and accountable. What does this mean for a growing number of North Carolina families? Hope won’t have to wait.