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N.C. State researcher hints at controversial voucher study to come

Friday Institute Director of Policy Research Trip Stallings

A pending study of academic outcomes in North Carolina’s controversial private school voucher program isn’t likely to be “non-controversial,” a leading N.C. State researcher said Monday.

Trip Stallings, director of policy research for N.C. State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, said researchers hope to release results from the K-12 study in the coming months.

Testing data will roll in over the next few weeks, although vetting the results will take months, he expects.

When released, it’ll be one of a precious few independent studies of the polarizing state program, which offers public dollars for low-income students to attend private schools.

However, like researchers before him, Stallings acknowledged the difficulty of assessing the Opportunity Scholarship Program. That’s largely because state law does not require one assessment for voucher recipients, making “apples-to-apples” comparisons between voucher students and comparable students in traditional public schools vexing.

Indeed, a Duke University report last year bemoaned the difficulty in gauging the program’s performance, calling the state’s accountability regulations “among the weakest in the country.”

N.C. State’s study seeks an “unbiased” analysis of the voucher program, although Stallings pointed out that the research relies on volunteers from private and public schools in order to make comparisons, potentially skewing the data.

The state needs incentives for students to participate in such data collection, he said.

Stallings’ comments came Monday at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, a conservative group that supports the school choice movement.

Conservative state lawmakers launched the voucher initiative in 2014, citing a need to create school choice options for the state’s poorest students, many of whom tend to lag their peers academically.

But critics have long disparaged the program for a paucity of available data and its speedy roll-out. Legislators plan to increase voucher funding by $10 million annually through 2027, spending a projected $900 million or so over the decade.

Since 2014, participation in the state program has risen from more than 1,200 students in 2014-2015 to more than 5,400 in 2016-2017.

Similar school choice initiatives have been unveiled in other Republican-controlled states. On Monday, Stallings compared North Carolina’s program to states such as Florida, Indiana and Louisiana, pointing out that while the state’s maximum voucher value of $4,200 trails other states, about 60 percent of the state’s private schools participate.

As Policy Watch has reported, the majority of private schools accepting vouchers are religious in nature, and some have been accused of maintaining anti-LGBTQ policies.

Still, Stallings said the state counts recipients in 97 of 100 counties, although the highest concentration tends to be in places like Charlotte, Wake County and Fayetteville.

N.C. State researchers say the study’s next step will be to publish an analysis of correlative data trends in the coming trends, although they cautioned the report will not be able to identify “causal” relationships. In layman’s terms, that means the study may note corresponding relationships in the data, but it may not be enough to point to the voucher program as a cause for any finding.

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