A report by the left-wing North Carolina Justice Center claims to have uncovered 62 instances of private schools receiving more funds from the Opportunity Scholarship Program than they have students enrolled. The author says there were a total of $2.3 million fraudulent payments.

But critics of the report contend that it inaccurately represents the truth, using old and mismatched data.

The report prompted the notice of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who put out a press release citing the research.

“It’s bad when taxpayer dollars are spent on private schools that have no accountability but it’s even worse when public schools are being dramatically short changed at the same time,” Cooper said.

“The numbers cited in the report are inaccurate, and the Justice Center should immediately publish a correction,” said Dr. Robert Luebke, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “Comparing these sets of numbers is like comparing apples and oranges. The ultimate goal clearly wasn’t to arrive at the truth but to generate a catchy headline that will stoke further anti-school choice sentiment.”

The Justice Center report, penned by school choice opponent Kris Nordstrom, landed as lawmakers are considering a significant expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this month, helps North Carolina families choose an alternative to their locally zoned public school.

The Justice Center report compares two sets of data — one from the Department of Administration’s Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) and one from the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA). DNPE tracks enrollment at private schools across the state, while SEAA keeps a tally of students receiving Opportunity Scholarships. The report claims a discrepancy between these two numbers.

“These discrepancies could represent innocent mistakes, or they could represent massive fraud. Unfortunately, lawmakers have failed to equip either DNPE or SEAA with the staff or authority to determine the reason for the discrepancies,” Nordstrom wrote.

But a document provided by the SEAA, which oversees Opportunity Scholarships, undermined the basis of Nordstrom’s reporting.

“Researchers have previously encountered challenges when attempting to compare the data … there are differences in the timing and manner that the data is collected and presented. These obstacles make it difficult to accurately reconcile datasets from two agencies,” the memo reads.

While DNPE data only reflects a school’s “enrollment at one point in time,” the “SEAA data is continually updated,” according to the memo. “For example, students, both Opportunity Scholarship recipients and other students, transfer into and out of schools during the school year. Enrollment can vary from semester-to-semester or even within the same semester.”

The memo also notes the two-factor verification process needed for a student to obtain an Opportunity Scholarship. Both the parent and the school must individually verify that a student is enrolled once the semester begins.

Dr. Dawn Baldwin Gibson, superintendent of Peletah Academic Center for Excellence in New Bern, shared with Carolina Journal that current DNPE numbers for her own school are wrong because the agency continues to publish outdated numbers.

The Justice Center report cited Peletah as having 21 students enrolled in 2021 but 23 Opportunity Scholarship recipients.

“For the 2023-2024 school year, we have an anticipated enrollment of 32 students. Of those 32, approximately 27 will utilize the Opportunity Scholarship,” Gibson said.

“It should be noted that the Nordstrom list is 89% comprised of reporting during COVID-19 when some North Carolina governmental agencies had suspended reporting requirements,” Gibson added. “Old data was utilized by DNPE for those years for many of the schools and thus caused them to be on the Nordstrom list.”

“Our bottom line message to the Justice Center: Do your homework,” Luebke added.

Note: This story has been updated to correct an error in the number of reported schools on the N.C. Justice Center list.