North Carolina students attending private schools through the state voucher program outperformed public-school counterparts on reading and math exams, according to a new study from N.C. State University researchers.
The study, released Monday, found that students getting Opportunity Scholarships showed a "positive, large and statistically significant" edge on the exams, based on about 500 public and private school students who voluntarily took the same nationally-normed exam.
On the other hand, a recent study by the League of Women Voters of Lower Cape Fear found the majority of voucher schools use a Bible-based curriculum that their experts say could leave students ill-prepared for college.
Both represent efforts to tackle an essential question: How much academic bang are North Carolina's taxpayers getting for the $1.3 billion allotted to keep the scholarships growing for 15 years?
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The Opportunity Scholarship program, which began in 2014, is popular with parents seeking alternatives to their public schools and with politicians who view school choice as an inherent good. It provides up to $4,200 a year to pay tuition for students from low- to moderate-income homes.
This year, just over 7,300 students are using the vouchers, worth a total of almost $29 million, to attend more than 400 private schools around the state. That includes 870 students in Cumberland County, 682 in Wake and 565 in Mecklenburg.
Critics say the money would be better spent on public education. They note that the state demands strict accountability from public schools but very little from private schools that get taxpayer checks.
But are the voucher students better off?
That answer remains elusive. N.C. State researcher Anna Egalite says the study she and her colleagues conducted provides valuable insights but doesn't mean the average scholarship recipient is outperforming peers who stayed in public schools.
"It raises a lot more questions that we as a state should follow up on," Egalite said.
Teasing out results
The state law that created Opportunity Scholarships calls for an evaluation of the academic gains or losses of participating students. But so far, that hasn't happened.
Egalite, an assistant professor in the College of Education, says the ideal situation would be to have a control group of eligible students who apply for but don't receive the vouchers. Because North Carolina's law expands voucher funding by $10 million a year, there's no need to turn applicants away.
Next best, Egalite said, would be if the state required private schools that accept public money to administer at least some of the same exams that students take in N.C. public schools. But that doesn't happen, either.
So the N.C. State team recruited public and private schools in the areas with the biggest scholarship participation (including Raleigh and Charlotte) to give students in grades 4 through 8 the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Because the scholarships are based on income — a family of three, for instance, can make no more than $51,129 to receive aid and no more than $38,443 to receive the full $4,200 a year — the study used students in high-poverty public schools who receive federal lunch aid as a comparison.
Parents and students also had to agree to the testing. About 700 students took the exam in spring 2017. The team then used other data to make the comparison as valid as possible, ending up with 245 usable exams from students in 24 private schools and 252 from students in 14 public schools.
The N.C. State analysis of those results shows "large positive impacts associated with voucher usage in North Carolina."
While that could mean children benefit from switching to private schools chosen by their parents, the report notes other possible explanations. For instance, the schools with the best results use the Iowa test as part of their own program, which could mean their teaching is better aligned with that exam.
And just over half of the voucher schools that participated in the study were Catholic, while only 10 percent of all schools receiving North Carolina vouchers are Catholic.
"The results reported here are not reflective of the average test score impact on a typical voucher student attending a North Carolina private school by way of the Opportunity Scholarship program," the report cautions.
The League of Women Voters study took a different approach. That group started by reviewing websites for schools receiving vouchers, most of which are faith-based.
The league found that just over three-quarters advertised that their curriculum reflects a Christian worldview that includes literal reading of the Bible, while other religious and independent schools (including Catholic schools) use a curriculum that incorporates North Carolina's standard course of study.
Academic experts then reviewed biology, history, government and literature textbooks from the Abeka Christian curriculum, the one most commonly advertised by voucher schools. The Abeka program rejects evolution in favor of a view of science "firmly anchored to Scriptural truth," promotes free-enterprise economics and offers history texts that instill "an intelligent pride for their own country and a desire to help it back to its traditional values," according to its website.
The reviewers concluded that Abeka texts neglect such topics as human genome research, misrepresent the fossil record and intersperse religious teachings with science and history. For instance, the report says a unit on Asia teaches that China was populated as a result of the Tower of Babel dispersion.
"To the extent that these schools depend on public monies for their funding, they are siphoning off greatly needed resources from our chronically underfunded public schools," the League of Women Voters study concludes.
The two studies don't necessarily contradict each other, and it's unlikely either will change many minds.
Critics of the program say that if public schools are expected to meet academic standards and report results to the public, private schools receiving public money should do the same.
Supporters say parents are the best judge of what their child needs and note that the $4,200 provided for scholarship recipients is well below the roughly $6,000 that North Carolina spends on each student in public schools. And they say most private schools that take voucher students still get most of their funding from private tuition.
Meanwhile, North Carolina has budgeted $44.8 million to award more than 10,000 Opportunity Scholarships in the coming school year.