Private-school vouchers can make a difference for low-income students

New research shows that the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) may be working for students. N.C. State University recently released a study showing that a small sample of OSP students outperformed a matched sample of public school students in Spring 2017 on a standardized math, reading and language test. The study’s results were “positive, large and statistically significant.” While the study’s limitations prevent the authors from directly attributing the results to the program and restrict those results only to the volunteer OSP students who participated in the study, the outcome suggests that the OSP may be making a real difference in students’ academic performance.

The OSP is a state-wide scholarship program that provides up to $4,200 a year for kindergarten through 12th grade students in low-income families to attend private schools. The program has grown from around 2,000 scholarships in the 2014-2015 school year to over 7,300 today. The General Assembly has pledged to expand the program every year for 15 years.

The N.C. State study, conducted by three professors in the College of Education, used the nationally-recognized Iowa Test of Basic Skills to compare similarly situated students in public school and those who use a scholarship to attend private school. The study looked at students who had been in their school both for one year and two years. The gaps between the two groups was statistically significant for all three subject areas for first-year students, and some results for second-year students persisted, but the most progress was demonstrated in language.

N.C. State’s study vindicates the OSP’s expansion and demonstrates that educational choice works. When a child is struggling in a public school, a modest scholarship can make all the difference by allowing her family to place her in a private school that meets her needs. The proof isn’t just statistical: We’ve seen positive results with individual children whose educational needs are being met for the first time.

The program serves economically-disadvantaged students whose parents would not be able to afford private school tuition. For these children, their new school can unlock potential that was previously hidden. Take, for example, a family in Merritt in coastal Pamlico County. Ruzalia Davis’ son, a third grader, struggled for attention in an overcrowded public school classroom. Now, at his new private school, Ms. Davis’ son benefits from small class sizes and has earned a place on the honor roll for the first time ever. “The Opportunity Scholarship Program has opened the door for my child to receive a better education. Truly, being awarded this scholarship has been the greatest thing for my young scholar and our family,” said Davis.

Students with disabilities also benefit from the OSP, and they can receive additional funds from another program, the Disabilities Grant Program. Kara White’s son, a third grader in Greensboro, is highly dyslexic, which makes it difficult to read and write. His struggles in public school led to depression, but the OSP and Disabilities Grant Program allowed his mother—a single parent on a budget—to enroll him in a private school that specializes in teaching dyslexic children. Now, White’s son is happy every day. In just a few months, he learned to read, write, tell time and count money. “I now have help and hope for my son’s education,” said White.

Most Americans already have educational choice: They choose to live in a good school district or they can pay for private school. Educational choice is widespread—unless you cannot afford it. Through the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the North Carolina General Assembly is giving low-income families the same educational choices that wealthier families already enjoy. The OSP’s expansion should be celebrated, and it should be no surprise that research shows that the program has made a difference in students’ lives.

Renée D. Flaherty is an attorney at the Institute for Justice in Virginia. She was on the team that successfully defended the constitutionality of the Opportunity Scholarship Program when it was challenged in court.