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Opportunity Scholarships: Dem cites pricey Raleigh school but neglects complexities

Oak City Academy in Garner opened in 2011 with 11 out of its first 12 students on Opportunity Scholarships. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)
Oak City Academy in Garner opened in 2011 with 11 out of its first 12 students on Opportunity Scholarships. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

Editor’s note: This story was updated 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 27, to correct an error.

A Wake County Democrat spoke out against expanding Opportunity Scholarships and pointed to one private school as a reason.

“State dollars should go to public schools,” said Rep. Abe Jones, D-Wake. “Private schools will get their money, believe me. They’ll get it from churches, from big donors. We’ve got some private schools in this county. Ravenscroft: Great school. My kids didn’t go there. I went up there and they quoted me tuition — $32,000 to send my kid to Ravenscroft. Both my kids went to Leesville Road High School and middle school. They got great educations.”

School-choice advocates point out that private schools with a hefty price tag — like the north Raleigh-based Ravenscroft — aren’t the norm for private schools across the state.

According to the school’s website, annual tuition at Ravenscroft for the 2021-22 school year is $27,245 for high school and $26,590 for middle school. But for the average N.C. private school, tuition rates are around one-third to one-fourth that.

For the 2016-17 school year, the median tuition charged by N.C. private schools was $5,483 per year, according to an analysis by N.C. State University. Private School Review pegs the average tuition in 2021 at $9,801.

Not all private schools accept students on the Opportunity Scholarship — and Ravenscroft is one of them, meaning any legislation relating to the scholarships would not affect the school one way or another.

Among private schools that accept Opportunity Scholarship students, average tuition is $7,773 per year, according to the school-choice advocacy organization Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

These figures compare to the per-pupil spending rate for public school students for the 2019-2020 school year of $10,632.

Jones failed to respond to request for comment from Carolina Journal.

Scholarship expansion

N.C. lawmakers are debating an expansion of the scholarship program that would raise the value of the scholarship and, potentially, the maximum annual income to qualify. On April 13, the House passed H.B. 32 in a party-line 69-49 vote. The Senate has introduced its own version of the expansion with Senate Bill 671.

Created in 2013, the Opportunity Scholarship Program is designed to help families who would otherwise struggle to afford private-school tuition but want to leave their locally zoned public school. The scholarships are worth up to $4,200 annually.

The expansion would extend Opportunity Scholarships so new families could attend schools like Oak City Academy in Garner. The school opened in 2011 with 11 out of its first 12 students on internal. Its charter mission was specifically to be a diverse private school — racially and socioeconomically.

“Part of the vision of the school was that everyone deserved a good education regardless of income, where you live, race, or background,” said CEO and headmaster Danny Breed.

Oak City’s tuition for K-sixth grade is $8,995 a year, but the school offers additional financial-need scholarships so that low-income families only pay a fraction of the full amount.

“These kids can attain this private-school education for what won’t cost any more than a monthly cell phone bill,” said Breed. “For these families, you can see the tears streaming down their faces, because they have hope again. You start seeing the light in the children’s eyes turn back on. They believe they actually can contribute to the world around them. They have a hope and a future.”

Racial question

During his remarks, Jones suggested that private schools don’t serve as racially a diverse population as private schools. “Most of the people who look like me are going to be in public schools,” said Jones, who is black. “Private schools will never, ever reach them in any kind of way.”

But Opportunity Scholarship students are actually more diverse than the traditional public school population: For the 2019-20 school year, 24% of the population of traditional public schools was black, compared to 28% of students receiving Opportunity Scholarships to attend a private school, according to data from the N.C. Education Assistance Authority.

Opportunity Scholarship families are also low-income households. A recent analysis by N.C. State University shows the median household income for Opportunity Scholarship recipients at $31,485.

“Democrats proclaim that only their party represents the interests of families of color, but their rejection of school choice programs for underrepresented groups belies that claim,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “School choice is inseparable from efforts to create a more equitable and just society for all Americans.”

During debate in the House, Rep. Jeffrey McNeely, R-Iredell, said the private school where his wife serves as an administrator — Statesville Montessori — has four students on Opportunity Scholarships. They are minorities whose families could not afford tuition in combination with the scholarship amount, so the school discounted their tuition. Tuition at the school is $8,148 a year for middle school, according to its website.

“That’s what happens with a majority of these scholarships,” McNeely said. “At the end of the day, what is it we’re wanting to do with these children? We’re wanting to give them the best education opportunity we can. If you think the public schools aren’t giving them that, then we need to find a school that does. That’s what this scholarship does. This gives kids a chance.”

Political squabble

With a handful of exceptions, support for Opportunity Scholarships has fallen along party lines since the program was created, with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has been one of the most vocal opponents, trying to zero out the program in his budget proposals year after year. Even while opposing scholarships for low-income students, Cooper and his wife sent their oldest daughter to St. Mary’s School — an all-girls boarding and day school in Raleigh — to complete high school in 2011.

Private School Review ranks St. Mary’s as the most expensive private school in North Carolina, with annual tuition of $58,900 for boarding students.

“While shockingly common, I’m still astonished by the hypocrisy of elected officials who reject small school choice initiatives for low-income and special-needs children but brazenly exercise school choice for their own children,” said Stoops.