North Carolina’s private-school voucher system is “poorly designed” for improving student outcomes, according to a new report from the Duke Children’s Law Clinic. But the state’s leading Republicans are pushing to vastly expand it anyway. 

Earlier this month, Senator Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell County, the Senate’s deputy president, introduced a bill that would remove eligibility barriers to the six-year-old Opportunity Scholarship Program. 

Gubernatorial candidate Dan Forest’s platform goes even further. It would make vouchers—currently limited to children of low- and moderate-income families—available to all students. 

To fund this expansion, Hise’s bill says the voucher reserve fund would require “at least” an additional $10 million “each fiscal year.” Yet the bill appears to add only $2 million a year to what has already been allocated: $74.8 million in the 2020–21 fiscal year, growing to $144.8 million by 2027–28. Hise’s office did not respond to the INDY’s requests for comment. 

The bill doesn’t seem likely to pass this year. COVID-19 relief efforts will probably consume the General Assembly’s short session, and already, House Minority Leader Darren Jackson says, Republicans “are openly speculating about billions in public education cuts” to offset revenue shortfalls. (In January, Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered state leaders to better fund education to meet the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education.” Senate leader Phil Berger responded that if judges want to dictate spending, they should run for the legislature.) In addition, Governor Cooper has been an outspoken voucher opponent, and Jackson says Democrats have enough votes to sustain a veto. 

But passing it might not be the point. Rather, the legislation offers Republicans an issue to campaign on this fall. When framed the right way, vouchers are popular: A January poll by the conservative Civitas Institute found that 67 percent of Democrats supported the program, and 78 percent of minorities said they would support pro-school-choice candidates.

“If you have a parent whose child is born in a zip code where the school just happens to be a failing school generation after generation, that parent should have a choice to send their kid to another school,” Forest said in a campaign video released last year. (Forest’s campaign declined to comment, citing INDY columns that referred to Forest as “an idiot.”)

According to Jane Wettach, who authored the Duke Law report, that framing is misleading. 

“The rhetoric was, ‘This gives parents whose children would be in failing public schools the choice.’ But that was never part of the program design,” she says.

Eligibility for the program, Wettach points out, has never been tied to a school district’s quality. 

“It is not designed as an escape from failing public schools, it is just designed as parent choice,” Wettach says. 

Right now, vouchers are restricted to students who have previously attended public schools and are dissatisfied; students renewing their vouchers; and students entering kindergarten or first grade, children of military parents, or children in foster care or who were recently adopted. 

Hise’s bill eliminates the requirement that students first try public schools. 

“The proposed expansion of eligibility completely decouples the voucher program from a family’s dissatisfaction with the public schools,” Wettach says. “It makes the program purely a government subsidy for any family who prefers private school.”  

“I think what you’re seeing is the pressure that the Republicans have, to put it bluntly, to make the vouchers more available to more of their political base,” says Pope “Mac” McCorkle, the director of Duke University’s Polis: Center for Politics. 

If Forest’s proposal to expand vouchers to “every family in North Carolina” were adopted, the program would no longer focus on lower-income children who might be assigned to struggling schools; it would now include white suburbanites who want to send their kids to private and religious schools with the government’s help. 

Since the Opportunity Scholarship Program began in 2014, 40,000 students have received vouchers in North Carolina—including more than 12,200 this year—costing the state about $49 million. But the program has come in well under budget because fewer students have used the vouchers than anticipated. From 2014–15 to 2017–18, for instance, almost $18 million went unspent. In the 2018–19 school year, the state had funds for 3,000 more vouchers than students who used them. 

Meanwhile, about 92 percent of students who have used vouchers have done so at religious schools—about three-quarters of which, according to Wettach’s report, use “biblically-based” curricula that conflict with state standards and are under no obligation not to discriminate on the basis on religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or any characteristic other than race or national origin. 

Both the underuse of vouchers and the popularity of religious schools are at least partially related to the fact that, even with vouchers, many secular, academically excellent private schools are still out of reach to middle and low-income families. The maximum voucher amount, $4,200, isn’t enough to cover tuition at schools like Durham Academy or Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, which cost at least $14,000 for younger grades and up to $28,000 in high school. 

If well-to-do parents had access to vouchers, however, the state would, in effect, begin subsidizing tuition at these elite institutions. 

Such a program would certainly give parents more options. But it would also lead to less accountability. 

Schools that accept vouchers in North Carolina do not have to produce data on students’ academic success. Unlike in other states with voucher programs, they’re also not required to be accredited, follow state curricular or graduation standards, hire licensed teachers, or conduct state end-of-grade evaluations. 

“We are getting no data on how the students are doing, and the design of the program is such that we will never have any data,” Wettach says. “It is a lot of money that the state is spending without any way of knowing whether the students are being well served by it.”  

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