NC voucher plan faces first clear year after start-up battles

After three years of legal limbo, advocates of North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program say it’s poised to take off with families in 2016-17.

“This year is really the first year,” says Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a Raleigh-based school choice advocacy group. “People are still getting the understanding that there’s no more of a legal cloud. It’s only going to build for the next few weeks and months.”

North Carolina lawmakers passed the Opportunity Scholarship bill in 2013. It provides up to $4,200 a year for parents of modest means to shift their students from public to private schools.

The bill came two years after the General Assembly lifted a self-imposed limit on the number of charter schools. Both moves were touted as alternatives for students who weren’t thriving in public schools, where test scores and other measures of academic success have remained low for students of color and poverty.

Charter schools, which are run by independent boards, have more flexibility in hiring, firing and scheduling than traditional public schools. But because they rely on public money, they face the same requirements for testing and public accountability. Charter schools can be housed in churches but can’t espouse any religion.

Schools getting vouchers are a different matter. They’re allowed to choose their own curriculum and exams, to teach religion and to use their own admission criteria.

The U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled in 2002 that taxpayer-funded scholarships to religious schools don’t violate the constitutional ban on establishment of religion.

In North Carolina, the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center sued to block the Opportunity Scholarships, saying the program violated the state constitution by diverting money from public education. Injunctions and legal battles limited participation in the early years.

In July 2015, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the program, and in September the legislature approved a budget that included $17.6 million for 2015-16 scholarships. But by that time most families had already made decisions about where their kids would go to school. Enrollment continued to grow during the school year, with more than 900 of 3,460 recipients joining the roster second semester.

The state took 2016-17 scholarship applications in February and got 5,462 from new students, with 4,180 deemed eligible. They’ll join current recipients who can renew their aid, as long as they remain in qualified N.C. private schools.

“This is literally the first year without stoppages,” Allison said. “That’s going to help quite a bit.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms