News: CJ Exclusives

Parents, Students Tout Benefits of Opportunity Scholarships

School choice giving families options to find best educational alternatives

Donovan Coates, an Opportunity Scholar in North Carolina, says that the state's school voucher program has helped improve his education. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)
Donovan Coates, an Opportunity Scholar in North Carolina, says that the state's school voucher program has helped improve his education. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)

RALEIGH — Ten year-old Donovan Coates-St. Remy loves science club, geography club, and his Windows 10 ThinkPad. He would have none of these things if not for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, a tuition voucher system that provides funding so he can attend Cathedral School, a private Roman Catholic institution in Raleigh.

“This year is our first year with the Opportunity Scholarship Program,” said Donovan’s mother, Betti Coates-St. Remy. “I didn’t really know about it until I’d read up on it. When we applied [for the scholarship] I was like, ‘if we get in, we’re definitely doing this.’ And we did. We were just so excited.”

Donovan attended a charter school prior to enrolling at Cathedral School, and though the institution was good, the atmosphere didn’t provide enough of an academic challenge for her bright, precocious middle school boy, Betti said.

“I really try not to put emphasis on test scores,” Betti said. “But I looked at them and thought, ‘my son can do so much better than this.’”

That’s when she decided to explore other options. After discovering the school voucher program through online research, and after visiting several private schools in the area, she and her husband decided the learning opportunities and hands-on instruction at Cathedral School would be the best fit for their son.

Donovan is one of thousands of North Carolina students who have benefited from at least one version of school choice, which allows parents from every economic background to depart traditional public schools and select options they believe will serve their children better — using vouchers, enrolling in charter schools, or educating their children at home. National School Choice Week, a nationwide educational and promotional campaign highlighting these options and advocating wider availability of them, begins today and runs through Jan. 30.

“I feel the greatest gift you can give your child is a good education,” Betti said. “I really do. I figure as a parent, if I do my part, it’s up to him what he does with that. But at least I can say, ‘Donovan, you have the opportunity.’”

Since his enrollment, Donovan’s grades have increased, and his attitude toward academics also has improved, Betti said.

“I just think if people knew more about [opportunity scholarships], if they knew they had the chance to go to another school that accepted [vouchers], then they might think, ‘well this is an alternative for me,’” Betti said. “If my child is over here, and this is not working for us, I can move my child over here to a different school.”

Donovan is just one of eight students at Cathedral School who have received an opportunity scholarship, and school principal Donna Moss would like to see the program grow in the coming year — not only within her institution, but also statewide.

“Parents don’t like uncertainty about whether their child is going to be able to get a scholarship, or whether the program will continue, and I think that now that we’re certain that the program will continue and we can start utilizing it effectively, I think we’ll see an uptick in participation statewide,” Moss said.

Enacted by legislation in 2013, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was subjected to a host of legal challenges regarding the use of public tax dollars to fund private school tuitions before July 2015, when the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the law constitutional.

The program now has awarded more than 2,500 children $4,200 vouchers to attend private schools during the 2015-16 school year, and is on more solid footing with parents who are looking for reliable education options, says Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation. But though the voucher program is moving forward, challenges remain.

“There is still some alignment necessary between private schools and the State Education Assistance Authority,” Stoops said. “And these are issues that can be worked out with minor changes to the law, or minor changes put in place by the SEAA that makes it easier for parents and private schools to accommodate the scholarship program.”

One of those issues is a conflict between private school and scholarship enrollment periods, Moss said.

“At this point it’s a question of whether or not seats are left to be had when a parent comes to enroll their child as an opportunity scholar, Moss said. “As the program becomes more well-known and widespread, I would like to think that the private school administrators could suggest some tweaks that could better serve the families.”

Families will continue to benefit from opportunity scholarships, according to Betti, who says she’s blessed to give her son the education and future he deserves.

“If I’d had the opportunity to go to a school like this, there’s no telling what career path I might have chosen,” Betti said. “[I tell Donovan] getting a good education is so important … because you have to build a life for yourself. I feel like if I give him an opportunity, or open up as many doors as I can for him, then it’s up to [Donovan] to decide what he wants to do with his life.”

Kari Travis (@karilynntravis) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.