Op-ed: School choice? Or schools’ choice?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 20, 2024

By Elizabeth Paul and Mary Ann Wolf

Public School Forum of N.C.

Decisions about education are some of the most important decisions families — and therefore state leaders — make. Just as parents consider the many school choices available in North Carolina, lawmakers are making choices about where to put our taxpayer dollars to yield the best outcomes for our children. Families across North Carolina want public schools that prepare their children to be well-rounded, self-sufficient and successful in the workforce and life.  

Our state leaders in the General Assembly have choices as to how to allocate taxpayer dollars. Recent decisions have led to the following results when it comes to public schools, which serve approximately 85 percent of students in North Carolina: 

The General Assembly recently opted to enact universal, taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, making private school “opportunity scholarships” available to any family, regardless of their income or whether they had previously enrolled in public schools. These vouchers were previously accessible only to low-income families who had previously attended public schools. With this decision, state lawmakers are choosing to send hundreds of millions of dollars per year to private and religious schools that can practice discriminatory admissions policies, and do not have to share what they teach or how their students perform.

With the increase in taxpayer funds being diverted to private schools in the name of expanding “school choice,” we must consider: how can parents and caregivers be sure that the schools they are choosing are adequately preparing their children to be well-rounded students who are prepared for a successful career and life? And what if the private schools they choose don’t choose them back? 

Using data from the State Education Assistance Authority and school websites, the Public School Forum of North Carolina conducted research on the 200 schools that received the most taxpayer funds from school vouchers through the Opportunity Scholarship Program during the 2023-2024 school year. We gathered information on religious affiliation and curriculum, teacher credential requirements and admissions policies. 

The findings highlighted that there are stark differences between public and private schools when it comes to testing accountability, teacher certification requirements and data reporting requirements. Some major takeaways:

  • Only 8.5 percent of the private schools receiving vouchers report standardized testing scores on their websites
  • Only 2 percent of private schools require their teachers to be certified by the state 

Traditional public schools, by comparison, are required to report student outcomes and require all teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and to be licensed. Families are able to easily access information on staffing, student outcomes and more for all public schools online. 

Private schools, including those that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers, also decide who they allow into their schools. Eighty-nine percent of the private schools receiving the most funding through vouchers discriminate in some capacity within their admissions process, thereby excluding a significant proportion of North Carolina students in the state from having access. These broad discriminatory practices take various forms:

  • Religious: 90 percent of the top voucher-receiving schools are religious, and 68 percent have religious requirements for admission.  
  • Academic: 59 percent of private schools receiving the most voucher funds have academic requirements. While we do not have reliable academic outcome data for private schools in North Carolina due to a lack of testing and reporting requirements, national studies have shown that students receiving vouchers do not perform better, and oftentimes perform much worse in private schools than public schools.   
  • LGBTQ: 41 percent of the top voucher-receiving schools have explicit exclusions for LGBTQ students. Many schools include a provision in their handbook that states that “the school reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to refuse admission to an applicant” who “practices or promotes a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, or otherwise has the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”
  • Students with disabilities: 38 percent of these schools have exclusions for students with disabilities. Some explicitly note that they do not “offer exceptional services as mandated in the public schools.” 

These admissions policies make clear that private schools have as much of a choice in choosing students as families have in choosing a school. Public schools, by comparison, accept and serve all students.

As the North Carolina General Assembly considers dramatically expanding funding for private school vouchers yet again, it is critical for taxpayers to understand where their tax dollars are going and who will benefit. In the face of calls for increased school choice, we must consider: by providing taxpayer-funded vouchers to schools that practice discriminatory admissions policies and are held to some of the weakest accountability and reporting requirements of states with universal voucher programs in the country, are we really providing more quality school options to children and families in North Carolina? Or have we instead expanded schools’ choice