A voucher program is likely to offer North Carolina the most transparent, easy-to-understand school choice option the state could consider this year. A new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report offers that assessment. Vouchers also require no tax code changes.

“Parents tend to have an easier time understanding vouchers than other types of choice programs,” said report author Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Research and Education Studies. “Vouchers also tend to be more transparent for both taxpayers and regulators.”

The tax implications should not be ignored, Stoops said. “The fact that vouchers require no major changes to the state’s tax system is ideal for states, including North Carolina, that are considering major tax reforms.”

Stoops’ report highlights potential benefits and drawbacks linked to vouchers, but he would welcome any expansion of school choice in North Carolina. “Regardless of the type of school choice program selected by lawmakers, the goal should remain the same — allowing parents to choose the school that best meets the needs of their child,” he said.

First proposed by economist Milton Friedman nearly 60 years ago, a total of 18 voucher programs now operate in 12 states and Washington, D.C. “Friedman concluded that a system shifting administration of schools from the government to private-sector entrepreneurs would enjoy numerous social, political, and economic benefits,” Stoops said. “Among them are higher-quality schools and more efficient use of taxpayer money.”

No school district or state has attempted to implement the kind of universal voucher program Friedman proposed, but studies of existing programs have shown promising results, Stoops said.

“There is a general consensus in the education research community that school choice has a positive impact on participating students,” Stoops said. “Beyond that general finding, nine of 10 well-designed empirical studies concluded that voucher recipients had statistically significant increases in performance. More than 20 studies have identified ways that vouchers deliver spillover benefits to traditional public schools.”

Two of the positive studies highlighted benefits tied to the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Charlotte, a privately funded voucher program started in 1999. “Evaluations in 2000 and 2007 found significant reading and math score gains for low-income, predominantly African-American scholarship recipients,” Stoops said. “In addition, qualitative studies conclude that parental satisfaction is high and most scholarship recipients graduated from high school.”

As he spells out positive results linked to vouchers, Stoops also details potential problems. “The major drawback of using a direct government voucher is that it tends to invite excessive government regulation of participating families and schools,” he said. “Those regulations can take the form of public school enrollment requirements, testing mandates, enrollment caps, and limits on eligibility and scholarship values. This means that a voucher program requires additional safeguards and protections.”

North Carolina also could avoid one of the key challenges voucher programs have faced in other states, Stoops said. “Voucher programs are more likely to encounter legal setbacks in states with constitutions that would prohibit distribution of public funds to religious schools,” he said. “North Carolina is one of the few states with a constitution that does not include those limitations. Voucher opponents would have a difficult time mounting a successful legal challenge to a voucher program in North Carolina.”

Stoops outlines a series of recommendations for policymakers considering a voucher program for North Carolina. Along with additional safeguards and protections for participating children, families, and schools, he suggests that eligibility ought to be tied to the poor performance of the student’s traditional public school, rather than the student’s family income.

“Reasonable accountability and transparency regarding student achievement also should be included in any new program,” Stoops said. “The bill should include clear and decisive language that grants maximum autonomy to participating schools.”

The state’s existing Division of Non-Public Education is a reasonable choice to supervise any new program, Stoops said. He also suggests that state officials make a special effort to ensure that low-income families are informed about their voucher options.

Program applications should be standardized, giving parents plenty of time to make their choices, Stoops said. The process for denying a student access to a school of choice should allow the school in question enough time to provide information and testimony to state education officials.

Vouchers should be as portable as possible, Stoops said. It also seems sensible to base the size of the voucher on a dollar amount equivalent to the per-pupil cost for schools in the student’s traditional public school district, he said.

A well-designed voucher program could generate plenty of positive results for parents and students, Stoops said. “Giving more families the freedom to pursue alternatives to the one-size-fits-all traditional district-run public schools is a worthy goal,” he said. “As long as policymakers recognize and address the trade-offs and challenges involved, a voucher program could lead to better outcomes for North Carolina children.”