The Opportunity Scholarship Program Earns the Early “A”

The first report card on North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is out, and it’s enough to make a parent proud. Findings from a new study reveal estimated program impacts on student achievement that are “positive” and “large,” according to the North Carolina State University researchers who authored the study. Use of an Opportunity Scholarship was associated with higher standardized test scores for students in their first and second years of participation.

Such findings are welcome, if not surprising, news to supporters. Enacted in 2013, the Opportunity Scholarship Program is extremely popular with the state’s families. The program provides state-funded scholarships, also known as vouchers, worth up to $4,200 annually to students so they can attend private school. This year, 7,344 students received Opportunity Scholarships.

Eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship Program is restricted to low-income families. A 2017 report from NCSU researchers shows the program is truly giving an educational choice to those least likely to have one: “Families that receive vouchers are among the lowest-income households in the state,” researchers write.

Is choice providing kids with a chance at academic success? It certainly seems so. The NCSU study reveals that in their first year of scholarship use, scholarship students outperformed public school students in reading, math, and language. In math and language, impacts were large. In year two, scholarship students continued to outscore their public school peers. Impacts for language achievement showed significant improvement, with scholarship students scoring nine points higher than public school students.

The NCSU study is noteworthy for several reasons. It is the first “apples-to-apples comparison” of scholarship and public school students in North Carolina. Students in the study all took the same nationally-normed test: the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Students were matched based on earlier state End-of-Grade test scores, disciplinary incidents, and demographic characteristics; all were low-income.

This new study also positions North Carolina’s program as an encouraging and distinct outlier to research trends. Evaluations of school choice programs have generally shown that it takes several years to see positive academic outcomes. Patrick Wolf, who has conducted numerous school choice evaluation studies, said at a 2017 Harvard University debate, “Effects tend to be null or negative the first few years, as students adjust to their new schools, and then turn more clearly positive after three years.”

What’s next? The NCSU study is a pilot, and will need to be followed by other studies. Because of study design limitations, NCSU researchers do not know whether Opportunity Scholarship use causes test score gains. Researchers did account for factors other than scholarship use that might impact test scores. Study participants were volunteers and were not chosen randomly, so it’s hard to say whether they represent the “typical” scholarship or public school student. Yet this is a groundbreaking study. It offers lawmakers and the public credible, early feedback on our state’s largest scholarship program.

Future studies are likely to build on the work of a state task force, created in 2017 by the NC General Assembly to study program evaluation. Our organization, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), served on this task force, along with researchers, public and private school leaders, and representatives from state educational agencies. The task force recently submitted its recommendations to the state legislature, outlining best ways to evaluate “causal relationships” of the program to student performance outcomes.

It’s important to remember that while test scores offer valuable insight into student performance, they do not reflect the totality of students’ schooling or even academic experiences. We welcome additional ways to evaluate the Opportunity Scholarship Program—ways that might reflect the “richer approach” the task force referenced in its considerations regarding program evaluation.

We look forward to future evaluations. We also celebrate this study’s early good news, even as we know there is much more to do to make sure all North Carolina children have the options and opportunities they need to succeed. Positive findings from this study and those like it confirm what we have long believed and worked to achieve: Educational freedom gives families a choice—and it gives kids a chance.

Brian Jodice is the interim president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

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