Six years ago, when N.C. Republicans launched the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the public education community was rightly troubled. The program gave low-income North Carolina families $4,200 to pay for private schools that do not have the same accountability or oversight as public schools, advocates said. This editorial board agreed, but we also had a larger concern.
Opportunity Scholarships, we wrote then, were “the first step in a Republican move toward bigger voucher programs.” Although Republicans insisted then and since that vouchers are all about choice for low-income families, we predicted that eventually there would be a clamoring to offer the scholarships to different income levels.
Fast forward to last week, when the N.C. Senate passed a bill that will expand accessibility of Opportunity Scholarships to many middle-class households in North Carolina. Senate Bill 609 would allow families that earn more than $70,000 a year to be eligible for the same private school vouchers available now to low-income families. The previous eligibility cap of $63,000 already was above the state’s median household income.
Why the expansion? In part it’s because the Opportunity Scholarship Program is having problems giving away all the voucher money it has, and it’s about to get a lot more. The program has $12 million on hand, and last year, Republicans voted to give it an extra $10 million a year through 2026. Republicans say more families would take advantage of the vouchers if the state removed some eligibility obstacles, so SB609 also cuts a cap that limits the number of kindergartners and first-graders eligible.
But by offering the scholarships to families making $70,000-plus, Republicans are showing that their aim all along isn’t really helping low-income families, but weakening public schools. Why? Lawmakers know that voucher programs take money from public schools, both directly and indirectly. Now, instead of just attempting to drain struggling schools of low-income families, lawmakers are about to provide middle-class families with a subsidy to attend private schools when perfectly good public schools might be available. That’s money that could and should go to public education.
The result? If the Opportunity Scholarship Program grows, bad schools will get worse, and better schools also will lose students and resources. The weaker public schools get, the more parents will become dissatisfied and the more clamoring there will be for vouchers at different income levels. That’s long been the goal of Republicans here and across the country. As we wrote in 2014: “Why burden themselves with the cost and effort of making public schools better when they can give families choice and let the market sort it out?”
The problem is — it’s not working for N.C. Republicans so far. Even with vouchers, low-income families can only afford lower quality private schools. Most are saying no thanks, and Republicans can’t give their scholarship money away. They should stop trying. Instead of expanding school vouchers to people who need them less, lawmakers should put education money where it’s needed most — in the public schools they’re supposed to support.