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New Duke University study: Big, unresolved problems continue to plague NC’s school voucher program

A new report from Duke University’s Children’s Law Clinic outlines the many ways in which North Carolina’s largest school voucher program continues to suffer from glaring policy weaknesses. These policy weaknesses increase the likelihood that voucher students are receiving an inferior education than their peers in public schools, delivering a bad deal to students and residents alike.

The report – an update to a 2017 study – finds that the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program:

  • Is poorly designed to promote better academic outcomes for students;
  • Fails to provide the public or policymakers with useful information on whether voucher students are making academic progress or falling behind;
  • Demand for the program has fallen short of the General Assembly’s projections, resulting in unused funds in every year since the program’s inception;
  • Nearly all voucher students (92 percent) are attending religious schools, more than three quarters of which use a biblically-based curriculum presenting concepts that directly contradict the state’s educational standards;
  • The NC State Education Administration Authority (SEAA), which administers the program, has provided the General Assembly with a method to evaluate the program’s academic effectiveness, but the General Assembly has failed to act on the recommendations;
  • Unlike many other states, North Carolina places no requirements on voucher schools in terms of accreditation, curriculum, teacher licensure, or accountability;
  • A lack of financial monitoring creates risks for students and nearby public schools that must absorb students when private schools fail; and
  • Voucher schools are allowed to discriminate against students and their families on the basis of religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

The table below, from the report, demonstrates the glaring extent to which North Carolina’s voucher program is the most unaccountable, unregulated voucher program in the country.

The report’s findings are largely unchanged from the 2017 study and are consistent with concerns raised by the North Carolina Justice Center and other organizations that support strong, inclusive public schools.

Despite the thorough documentation of the voucher program’s glaring weaknesses, legislative leaders have refrained from enacting school quality requirements such as accreditation or approval of curricula. Legislative leaders have also stymied any attempt to meaningfully evaluate the academic performance of voucher students. For example, H569 would have made the changes necessary evaluate student performance of voucher students, but leadership refused to provide the bill a hearing. Perhaps leaders were discouraged that recent evaluations of statewide voucher programs in Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, and Washington DC have revealed negative impacts for voucher students.

Rather than address the program’s many shortcomings, House and Senate leaders are competing to expand these unaccountable programs. Their solution to lack of demand is to loosen eligibility requirements, expand subsidies to families who never intended to enroll in public school, and spend $500,000 per year on marketing.

As this Duke report highlights, however, ignoring the many programs plaguing the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program won’t make those problems go away.

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