Expansion of school choice program will help poor students

Gov. McCrory just signed a budget that will fund an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Gov. McCrory just signed a budget that will fund an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. AP

For North Carolina families, educational choice is here to stay. A transformational budget, just signed by Governor McCrory, funds a historic expansion of our state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program, which provides scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, empowers parents to select the school that best meets their children’s needs.

I applaud North Carolina’s leaders for their response to parental demand. In three years, nearly 23,000 scholarship applications have flooded in from families – including the Guins of Charlotte.

“I’m excited about the potential of my children receiving a more customized and better quality education…Education of this type was only a dream [before],” says Janetta Guin, whose two children are first-time scholarship recipients.

Parental affirmations such as these emboldened us to act. Without intervention, funding could not have kept pace with demand. Now, an additional 2,500 scholarships will be funded annually for the next decade; by 2028-2029, the program could serve almost 36,000 students.

Still, opposition persists. Weighing in on recent K-12 measures (“Legislators pass 1 good, 1 bad K-12 reform”), the Observer’s editorial board gave the Opportunity Scholarship Program a thumbs-down. Participating private schools, says the board, face “little accountability,” schools are often religiously-affiliated, and research elsewhere shows mixed or negative outcomes.

Private schools do in fact adhere to testing requirements, although requirements aren’t identical to those of public schools. Why should they be? Where is the evidence that uniformity alone ensures excellence? It is also patently unfair to force low-income families to stay in public schools, where children have a 40 percent chance of being proficient on state end-of-grade tests. Almost all schools earning an “F” on state report cards are high-poverty schools. How do families feel?

“I want to do all I can so that [my son] won’t become another statistic,” says LaToya Allen of Charlotte.

What about other concerns? A school’s religious affiliation is a non-issue legally. In a 2002 ruling upholding Cleveland’s scholarship program, the U.S. Supreme Court declared such programs “neutral with respect to religion,” since [parents] choose, independently, where to direct [scholarships].

Research is encouraging. In 2004, when Washington, D.C. launched its own Opportunity Scholarship Program, the city ranked first in public education funding but dead-last in overall performance nationally. Today 91 percent of scholarship students graduate from high school, compared to 70 percent of students remaining in D.C.’s school system.

Clearly, public schools educate most – nearly 1.5 million – of our state’s students, including my two daughters. Thus, I believe that the budget rightly affirms public schools’ primary role by providing historic pay increases for teachers. I also believe even more resources must be directed to public schools in coming years.

But we must face reality: our K-12 system doesn’t educate poor students well. The Opportunity Scholarship Program was designed to help our public schools with this critical mission. Though the editorial board may not agree, we have thousands of low-income families – standing at the door of opportunity – that do.

Darrell Allison is the president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.