Voucher program hitting its marks

Debate over the impact of the Opportunity Scholarship Program was renewed recently when N.C. State researchers Anna Egalite, D.T. Stallings, and Stephen Porter published a study that found “large positive impacts associated with voucher usage in North Carolina.”

Their working paper is actually the fourth published analysis of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the state’s voucher program for low-income families. When examined as a group, these studies offer insight into the enormous benefits that private schools, parents, and children receive from the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program is one of three private school choice initiatives in North Carolina. During the 2017-18 school year, more than 7,300 students from economically disadvantaged families received an Opportunity Scholarship of up to $4,200 a year to attend the participating private school of their choice. To meet the increasing demand for scholarships, the state spent nearly $27.9 million on the program this year, a fivefold increase from its first operational year in 2014-15.

The N.C. State team published its first report of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in July 2017. It surveyed private school leaders and found that most of them chose to participate in the program to help their school serve more disadvantaged students. School leaders also cited their desire to provide an alternative course of study to public schools and achieve greater racial and socioeconomic integration in their school. They found that incoming Opportunity Scholarship students were less prepared academically than non-scholarship students and were satisfied with the level of parental involvement from Opportunity Scholarship families.

They published a second report in July 2017. Researchers asked parents and guardians to offer their perspectives on the program. Participating parents were extremely satisfied with their choice of school. Around 94 percent assigned their chosen private school a grade of A or B, while roughly two-thirds awarded their child’s former public school a C or lower. Seven of 10 parents were pleased with school safety and academic quality of their chosen private school. Ninety-four percent of parents said that educational quality was a “very important” consideration, while less than one-third said that extracurricular activities were essential.

A month later, N.C. State released a third report that summarized the characteristics of voucher families. Researchers discovered the median income of new voucher recipients was $16,213. The median income was even lower for families who renewed their scholarship. Voucher recipients are less likely to be white or Latino and more likely to be black. Among those who applied but were deemed ineligible for a scholarship, the most common reasons were the failure to enroll in a North Carolina public school prior to application and exceeding the household income threshold.

The fourth and most recent report examined test scores. Researchers administered the Iowa Test of Basic Skills math and reading tests to small, volunteer groups of Opportunity Scholarship and public school students. Using statistical techniques that control for differences between the private and public school samples, they found “positive, large, and statistically significant” benefits for voucher recipients. Opportunity Scholarship students outperformed their public school counterparts in the first year and demonstrated even larger gains in year two.

When findings for all four reports are combined, we get a complete picture of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Private school leaders and parents are unequivocally satisfied with the program. Opportunity Scholarship students are less prepared academically, are very poor, and are disproportionately black. Private schools appear to boost learning outcomes for scholarship recipients.

In sum, the program is doing what lawmakers hoped it would — provide greater educational opportunities to those who do not have the resources to send their children to a school that better meets their needs. The Opportunity Scholarship Program is a worthwhile investment in North Carolina’s most disadvantaged children.

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Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president for research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president for research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.