North Carolina lawmakers have an opportunity. After spirited debate by participants on both sides of the aisle, last week members of the House Education Committee approved a bill (HB 944) to provide low income children with a voucher of up to $4,200 to attend nonpublic schools. The action was an historic first step in North Carolina to expand real educational opportunity for those who need it most. This morning, HB 944 was included in the House budget bill. For legislators on both sides of the aisle, indisputable facts and compelling reasons demonstrate why North Carolina should move forward with this legislation.
Children Need Opportunity. Statistics don’t lie. Too many minority children are lagging academically. They are also at higher risk to drop out of school and be caught in a cycle of poverty. A good education can be a solution to these problems. However many of these children are trapped in schools that are struggling or failing or don’t fit their needs. For these children, there are no other educational options. A welcoming and challenging school can work wonders in getting students back on track. Research on voucher programs in North Carolina suggests such initiatives have helped to produce higher test scores and higher levels of college attendance and completion.
Vouchers are Targeted Toward Needy Students. Contrary to the claims of opponents, vouchers are not going to well-off families to help finance their child’s education in the best private schools. Under provisions of the legislation, that can’t happen. In 2013 only students registered as full time students in North Carolina public schools, and have not graduated or received the scholarship the prior year, are eligible to apply. Recipients must be from families at 100 percent of eligibility for the federal free or reduced lunch program to qualify for school choice vouchers, labeled Opportunity Scholarships. In year two (2014), the income eligibility increases to 133 percent of eligibility for students to qualify for federal free or reduced lunch program or 240 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. In essence, the income ceiling to qualify for the school voucher program is about $43,500 for a family of four. In 2014-15, the ceiling increases to about $58,000 for a family of four. That’s hardly well-off. To ensure that the legislation helps the truly needy, another provision requires that at least 50 percent of available Opportunity Scholarship funds be awarded to individuals from households whose income is not in excess of the amount required to qualify for federal free and reduced lunch.
Opportunity Scholarships Provide Accountability. The legislation approved by the House requires schools to annually administer nationally-normed tests in grades three, six, nine and eleven. Schools are also required to report the results of these tests to the State. In addition to the testing requirements, schools are required to comply with health, attendance and safety regulations that apply to other schools. Schools that do not comply with these regulations can be prevented from participating in the Scholarship program. Lastly – and most importantly – schools participating in the scholarship program are held accountable by parents; the highest form of accountability. It’s a simple equation for most private schools: schools that provide good educational experiences for students and parents will gain students; schools that fail to do so will lose students. Because parents vote with their feet, private schools have more compelling reasons than public schools to offer a high quality education and stay attentive to the needs of students and parents.
Opportunity Scholarships Do Not Harm Public School Finances. Voucher opponents contend the legislation is the beginning of the dismantling of public education. Nonsense. In 2013, the state is requesting $10 million for Opportunity Scholarships. When compared with the $7.5 billion the state spends for K-12 public education, the scholarship funds comprise 13 hundredths of 1 percent of the entire education budget.
On average private schools can educate a student for less than public schools. It is true these savings will also be offset by some students receiving vouchers who will not be leaving the public schools, but are already enrolled in private schools. This effect will be minimized, however, as it is likely that a small percentage of the low-income students eligible for the vouchers will have the means to already be enrolled in private school. In essence, certain schools will receive a little less money but will have fewer students requiring fewer resources. Overall the difference in per pupil funding is not that significant. In 2006, a study by Susan Aud reported that from 1990 to 2006 school choice programs across the nation had saved state taxpayers $22 million and local taxpayers approximately $421 million. These savings can free up resources for other educational expenses and can actually result in higher per pupil expenditures.
North Carolina Supports Vouchers. Supporters of Scholarship Grant legislation have been buoyed by the results of two recent polls. Last fall a Friedman Foundation-Civitas Institute poll found that nearly 6 of 10 North Carolina voters (57%) said they support school vouchers, compared to 32% who said they oppose such a school choice system. Earlier this year, a March Civitas poll found that 71 percent of respondents favor the state providing scholarship grants of up to $4,200 per year to help families pay tuition, fees, books or other educational-related expenses. An equally important result is that support for vouchers is strong across political and racial lines. 67 percent of the GOP favored the proposal; 78 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Independents. 83 percent of African Americans favored Scholarship grants compared to 67 percent of Whites and 74 percent of “Other” 
The Opportunity Scholarship Grant is about fairness and providing children another chance. Of course we all want strong public schools that meet the needs of all students. However that goal must be balanced against the reality that all students are different. Who better than parents can determine what school best fits the needs of their child? Many parents already have the ability to make that choice. The Opportunity Scholarship Grant provides low income families the ability to choose the type of school that is best for their child.
Do such programs work? Ask the parents in cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland or Washington DC or those who live in the 12 other states who have such programs what they think. The waiting lists and continued calls for expansion for the voucher programs speak volumes. What more do we need to know?
 For an extended discussion of the benefits of school choice programs in North Carolina see chapter on Parental School Choice by Dr. Terry Stoops, pps. 94-98 in “First in Freedom:Transforming Ideas into Consequences”, John Locke Foundation 2013.
 Susan Aud, “School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, April 2007.
 For results see February 2013, Civitas Poll, Crosstabs. 1