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Vouchers allow low-income families to attend private schools, but cost is still a challenge

Nariah Hunter (center right), 7, dances with classmates as they sing in music class on March 15, 2016. North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarship program is making it possible for Janet Nunn's 7-year-old granddaughter, Nariah Hunter, to attend Victory Christian Center School.
Nariah Hunter (center right), 7, dances with classmates as they sing in music class on March 15, 2016. North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarship program is making it possible for Janet Nunn's 7-year-old granddaughter, Nariah Hunter, to attend Victory Christian Center School.

North Carolina families using taxpayer money to attend private schools are enjoying the educational opportunity but struggle to cover all the new financial costs, according to new studies by N.C. State University.

Since 2014, thousands of low-income families have received up to $4,200 per child to help cover the costs to attend private schools. Financial concerns were raised by parents and leaders of private schools in a pair of new reports released last week by N.C. State researchers.

“For some families at the lower end of the spectrum, it really was too much when they had to take into account the food and transportation costs,” said Anna Egalite, an N.C. State assistant professor of education and lead author of both studies.

State lawmakers created the Opportunity Scholarship program in 2013 to give families more options to meet their children’s educational needs. Critics called the vouchers an attack on public education and sued to block the program, but in 2015 the N.C. Supreme Court ruled the program constitutional.

Vouchers are slated to be used by 8,226 students for the upcoming school year. State lawmakers included $44.8 million for the program in this year’s budget, with funding set to increase to $144.8 million a year by 2027.

The voucher program helped reverse years of declining enrollment in the state’s private schools. Last school year, 100,585 students attended private schools. Religious schools make up the majority of schools that get funding.

The program sets family income limits for scholarship eligibility. For a family of four, income must be less than $45,510 to receive the full $4,200 scholarship. Any costs above $4,200 are the family’s responsibility.

Parents and school leaders both talked about how the annual cost of attending private schools is often above the scholarship amount. In addition to tuition, which at some schools can cost more than $10,000, families face costs such as transporting their children to school, buying meals and uniforms, application fees and activity fees.

“We’ve seen families across the state step up and dig into their own pockets, dig into their own coffers to find quality educational options for their kids,” Brian Jodice, vice president of communications for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in an interview.

The top reason parents turned down the voucher was that tuition and fees were too expensive, according to the survey.

One parent earning minimum wage who accepted the full scholarship told researchers about still having to pay $4,000 a year to cover the remaining school costs. The parent’s children don’t play sports at the school because it “just costs too much.”

“I go broke for this school but I do it because I feel my kids have a better chance of being successful if they aren’t around the distractions of public schools,” the parent added. “And they learn about our religion which I feel will help build morale.”

Some private schools offer financial aid to help families cover the cost. School leaders said in their survey they prefer that voucher families pay at least some amount so they feel commitment to the school.

Even with financial assistance, 79 percent of the parents in the survey who took vouchers said they still have to pay some costs. Two-thirds said the scholarship paid most of their expenses.

Jodice said the willingness to provide financial assistance dispels the myth that private schools are exclusionary and elitist. According to the survey, 81 percent of the schools said they participated in the program because it was very important or moderately important to serve more disadvantaged students.

But Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, sees less altruistic motives.

Nordstrom pointed to how 86 percent of participating schools said easing tuition costs for eligible families already attending the school was important. He also noted how 78 percent of schools said it was important that participation provided additional revenue to assist with the operation of the school.

“That’s a big sign that this isn’t as much motivated by giving new opportunities to students as it is subsidizing private school students that already exist,” he said.

Looking at the future, 73 percent of the participating schools surveyed reported being concerned that the scholarship might not keep pace with increases in the cost to educate students. In addition, 61 percent of the schools said it was a major or minor concern that the scholarship doesn’t cover their school’s cost of educating a student.

Some private schools have capped the number of voucher students they’ll accept in case the state money goes away.

“Many schools were wary of the program’s stability and remain concerned that they may run the risk of taking on a significant financial burden, if the program ends and they want to keep Opportunity Scholarship families in their schools,” the authors wrote in the study.

‘Saved her education’

Even with the financial challenges, parents and school leaders expressed overall satisfaction with how the program has worked out.

A major element of the program has been to give lower-income families the ability to leave public schools to enroll in a private school.

“No matter what viewpoint you’re coming from, there’s a reason to find out why parents are choosing to leave the public schools to enter the program,” said Trip Stallings, director of policy research at N.C. State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, which did the surveys.

The “unacceptable” quality of their prior school and concerns about school safety were the top two reasons parents cited in the survey for why they pulled their child out of a public school to use the voucher program.

“This scholarship saved her education and she now loves school and the learning process,” said a survey parent who said her daughter excels with smaller class sizes and lack of bullying.

Of the parents who made a switch from public to private schools, 94 percent gave their child’s new school an “A” or “B” grade. That compared with only 27 percent giving those same marks to their child’s previous school.

“These parents are delightful, they’ve added to our culture, the children are delightful and wonderful and are doing wonderfully,” a High Point school leader told researchers.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui