PUBLISHED:May 19, 2020

New report from Children’s Law Clinic examines N.C. school voucher program


The report presents a detailed six-year review of the program, which provides taxpayer-funded scholarships to low- and moderate-income students to assist with the payment of tuition at private schools. 

Professor Jane Wettach Professor Jane Wettach

A new report on the school voucher program in North Carolina, also known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, has been released by Duke Law School’s Children’s Law Clinic.

School Vouchers in North Carolina 2014-2020 presents a detailed six-year review of the program, which provides taxpayer-funded scholarships to low- and moderate-income students to assist with the payment of tuition at private schools. Included are up-to-date facts and figures about the cost, participation, academic outcomes, and evaluation of the program, as well as a program analysis and recommendations.

The report’s release follows the introduction of several bills in the state’s General Assembly that represent divergent views on the continuation of the program. One bill would expand the eligibility criteria and appropriate additional funds for school vouchers. Another would freeze all future funding at 2018-19 levels.

“Given the state’s current and anticipated investment in the voucher program, it is vital for the public and especially members of the General Assembly to understand the details of the program and how it has been working,” said William B. McGuire Clinical Professor of Law Jane R. Wettach, the clinic’s founding director and lead author of the report. “I hope the data presented will help the legislature make sound decisions about the continuation of the program, with the interests of both students and the public in mind.”

The Children’s Law Clinic provides free legal advice, advocacy, and legal representation to low-income, at-risk children in cases involving special education, school discipline, and children’s disability benefits.The report updates an earlier report issued in 2017.

Key findings include:

  • More than $150 million in taxpayer funds has been spent on the Opportunity Scholarship Program since its inception in 2014, with another $730 million appropriated to be spent between now and 2027. Just over 12,000 students currently participate, which is less than one percent of the state’s school-aged children.
  • No information is available to the public about whether the students using school vouchers have made academic progress or have fallen behind. All public reporting on academic outcomes of students receiving vouchers has ended because the program’s design prevents meaningful data from being available.
  • The central feature of the program is the provision of a government subsidy to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools. More than 90 percent of vouchers are used to pay tuition at religious schools; three-quarters of those schools use a biblically-based curriculum presenting concepts that directly contradict the state’s educational standards.
  • Private schools participating in the program are not required to be accredited, adhere to state curricular or graduation standards, employ licensed teachers, or administer state end-of-grade tests. North Carolina’s accountability measures for the voucher program are among the weakest in the nation.
  • Nearly half of the new applicants are those entering kindergarten and first grade who have not attended public school. Most other children are required to have attended public school before applying for a voucher. Once a child is awarded a voucher, it can be renewed for successive years.
  • After convening a task force to study program evaluation, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program, concluded that its features prevent an independent research organization from conducting an effective, valid, and reliable evaluation. Thus, although the law requires such an evaluation to be conducted, none is planned.
  • Only about five percent of the schools accepting voucher payments are subject to financial review by the state. At least one private school, almost entirely supported by voucher payments, closed down mid-year, leaving nearly 150 students to be unexpectedly absorbed by surrounding public schools.

The report also provides recommendations that focus on improving the accountability of the program to the taxpayers who fund it and protecting the students in the program from receiving a sub-standard education. The recommendations encourage the General Assembly to amend the program to:

  • require all participating private schools to offer a curriculum that is equivalent to the curriculum used in public schools or create an accreditation system that holds schools to strong academic standards;
  • require students using vouchers to participate in the state end-of-grade testing program, and require the publication of data regarding academic outcomes:
  • require participating schools to set reasonable qualifications for teachers;
  • and create a mechanism to prevent schools that consistently fail to provide an adequate education from continuing to receive voucher payments.

Click here to read the full report.