Private-school scholarships benefit low-income students

Critics claim North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program poses a triple threat to taxpayers and families due to a lack of accountability, affordability and accessibility. Opponents say the program, which provides state-funded private-school scholarships to low-income families, offers few quality schools at a price parents can pay. Their bottom line: It’s speculative, risky and sure to default on its promises.

Thousands of families would disagree. Their experience, along with evidence and recent events, suggests the program can meet its commitments. Since the program was launched four years ago, families have submitted nearly 33,000 applications. Applications have increased each year; families already have submitted almost 9,000 applications for the 2017-18 school year.

Long-term evidence backs families’ confidence. Most research evaluating school-choice programs shows a benefit to students. While two new studies of the voucher program in Washington, D.C., revealed conflicting results, research on long-term outcomes is impressive. According to the Washington voucher program administrator, data for 2015-16 reveals a 98 percent graduation rate and an 86 percent college acceptance rate.

What about accountability in North Carolina? Taxpayers soon will be able to judge for themselves. Researchers from N.C. State University are leading an early academic impact analysis of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. This evaluation, recently announced by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina will compare the performance – on the same nationally standardized test – of a sample of scholarship students with those of public school students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Results are scheduled to be released this fall.

Annual reporting from an independent evaluation, required by statute, was slated to begin in 2017-18. However, no evaluation was initiated, largely because public funding was never allocated statutorily. So our organization has worked hard, along with public and private K-12 stakeholders, to ensure that a timely and independent “apples-to-apples” comparison still takes place. We’re hopeful that it will establish the foundation for all future assessment.

What about affordability and accessibility? PEFNC tracked down 2016-17 average annual tuition numbers for almost all of the private schools registered to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program as of February 1 this year. What we found will surprise many.

Contrary to opponents’ claims, North Carolina private schools registered for the Opportunity Scholarship Program represent a diversity of tuition price points. Schools charge annual tuition ranging from just over $2,000 to $22,000 or more. In Wake County, for example, 42 percent of the private schools registered to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program charge $8,000 or more – nearly double the scholarship capped amount of $4,200.

How are schools working to make tuition affordable beyond the scholarship amount? Schools do this through traditional financial aid or by setting “flexible” or “indexed” tuition from a range of rates, based on what parents can pay. However, their commitment extends beyond financial aid; these schools truly care about children who need help the most.

Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh – where average tuition exceeds $14,000 – is working to ensure the door is open to families. Principal Jason Curtis says, “We are fully committed to making sure that education at Cardinal Gibbons is accessible to any family who wants to be a part of our school community. Families who might not have thought it possible to enroll at Cardinal Gibbons are able to do so because of the Opportunity Scholarship Program and our school’s commitment to need-based aid for families.”

A commitment to helping families, from schools across the price spectrum, is making the Opportunity Scholarship Program stronger. Whatever choice families make – to attend a lower-cost private school or to pursue a higher-tuition alternative – one thing seems clear: They’re satisfied. Ninety percent of families receiving Opportunity Scholarships have renewed for next year.

What do families know that critics don’t? This program is headed for a triple-A rating. It’s accessible and affordable, and we’ll soon have further confirmation that it’s accountable. Families also know this: It’s helping their children – and there’s nothing speculative about that.

Darrell Allison is the president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.