Vouchers increase enrollment in North Carolina’s private schools

Teachers usher elementary students down the hall as they head for home at the end of the school day on the private school campus of Raleigh Christian Academy in Raleigh on August 21, 2014.
Teachers usher elementary students down the hall as they head for home at the end of the school day on the private school campus of Raleigh Christian Academy in Raleigh on August 21, 2014.

North Carolina’s new voucher program helped reverse years of declining private school enrollment to increase the number of students attending independent and religious schools to the state’s highest level since 2007.

New state figures released last week show 97,259 students attended 720 private schools during the 2014-15 school year, compared with 95,768 students the prior year. Enrollment had been dropping annually since the 2007-08 school year, when 97,656 students were in private schools.

This year’s 1,491-student increase, amounting to 1.6 percent, was largely fueled by a new state program that let low-income families use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools. The future of the voucher program, officially called opportunity scholarships, is uncertain as the N.C. Supreme Court is reviewing a lower-court ruling that the vouchers are unconstitutional.

“The opportunity scholarships had a very direct impact on the increase of students that are enrolled in private schools, because the main theme is that we’re removing that financial barrier,” said Darrell Allison, president of voucher advocates Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “By doing that, now something that was only a dream for working-class families is within their reach.

“You can also attribute it to the economy getting better.”

Traditional public schools educate 84 percent of the state’s 1.7 million students. About 4 percent attend charter schools, 6 percent are in private schools and 6 percent are home-schooled.

But increases in private school enrollment shouldn’t come from taxpayer dollars, according to Christine Bischoff, a lawyer with the Education & Law Project at the N.C. Justice Center, which filed a lawsuit against the voucher program.

“If parents want to send their children to private schools, that’s their right to do that,” she said. “Our concern is it changes when the government uses state taxpayers’ dollars to fund those schools.”

Also released last week, new state figures show an estimated 106,853 students attended 67,804 home schools in the 2014-15 school year – a 9 percent increase from 98,172 students the prior year.

It’s a testament to the success of home schooling that it’s reached 100,000 students since being legalized by the N.C. Supreme Court in 1985, according to Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation.

“Having 100,000 home-schoolers means lawmakers are going to pay even more attention to the home-school community in North Carolina,” he said. “If they were to be their own district, they’d be the third-largest district in the state. If you put that in perspective, you realize how powerful they can be.”

Before the voucher program, home schooling was rising but private school enrollment was falling.

The General Assembly set aside $10.8 million to provide as much as $4,200 for families to send their children to private schools for the 2014-15 school year. In addition to meeting income limits, scholarship recipients had to have either enrolled in kindergarten or attended a public school the prior year.

In August 2014, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood struck down the voucher program. But in September 2014, the N.C. Court of Appeals agreed to release state money that had been awarded before Hobgood declared the program unconstitutional.

The appellate ruling prevented the release of new vouchers. State officials said only 1,216 vouchers were used in the 2014-15 school year. More than 4,200 applicants had been eligible.

The N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments in February, but it’s uncertain when a ruling will be issued. The Supreme Court also hasn’t ruled on a request by legislative leaders to let the program continue for the 2015-16 school year while the case remains under review.

In hopes of the program continuing, state lawmakers want to provide $17.6 million in vouchers for the upcoming school year and to expand the program’s income-eligibility guidelines.

Voucher opponents say the program is another sign of erosion of legislative support for traditional public schools.

“When you see what’s happening with public schools, you’d think the General Assembly is favoring private schools,” said Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, which is among the plaintiffs challenging the voucher program. “You’d think that’s the intent of what they’re doing.”

But Allison of Parents for Educational Freedom said parents now take a broader view on the best way to educate their children.

“We can no longer ignore the fact that when it comes to K-12 education, families in North Carolina look at K-12 education very comprehensively,” he said. “They don’t look it strictly from a traditional public-school mindset.”

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Wake County school system faces increased competition

Increased competition from charter schools, home schools and private schools contributed to the Wake County school system’s smallest student enrollment increase since 1990.

Enrollment in charter schools, private schools and home schools in Wake County grew by 3,357 students during the 2014-15 school year. In contrast, the Wake County school system grew by 1,884 students – well below district and state projections.

“We are aware that we are facing increasing competition from home schools, private schools and charter schools, particularly with the relaxed rules for charter schools and the voucher program for private schools,” said Wake school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton. “The position that we have taken as a board and a school system is that it is imperative that we provide a quality education for parents and students regardless of where they live in the county.”

The 155,184-student school district educates 81 percent of the county’s students. There were 16,932 students in Wake private schools, 10,407 in home schools and 8,594 in charter schools.