School choice has always been one of the core principles of the state and national Republican Party. The 2015 N.C. Republican Party platform calls for “incentives for parents who educate their children in private or home schools” and the “expansion of charter schools and vocational curricula.” National GOP leaders have been unequivocal advocates for greater “consumer choice in education.”
So when North Carolinians elected a Republican legislative majority in 2010 and a Republican governor in 2012, there was a reasonable expectation that they would expand educational options. And our elected officials rose to the occasion.
Gov. Pat McCrory has championed increases in high-quality charter schools and vocational education. State legislators removed the cap on charter schools, granted instructional flexibility to home schools, and eventually approved two popular private school voucher programs.
Thanks to their efforts, school choice is thriving in North Carolina. But it is time for leaders in the N.C. General Assembly to take the next step and fully fund the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the Special Education Scholarship Grants for Children with Disabilities.
In 2013, several public school advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit designed to terminate all vouchers awarded to low-income families through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. With Hart v. State making its way through the courts and the outcome uncertain, it was understandable that Republican budget writers would take a cautious approach to funding the state’s private school scholarship programs over the last year-and-a-half.
Earlier this summer, a state Supreme Court majority determined that the Opportunity Scholarship Program does not violate public school finance provisions in the state constitution. Since the U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled in Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris that school vouchers do not violate the U.S. Constitution, it appears that the legal fight is over.
As such, legislators’ wait-and-see funding philosophy is no longer appropriate or desirable, particularly for thousands of North Carolina families who simply want to provide their children with an education that best meets their needs but do not have the means to do so.
Publicity surrounding the court’s opinion will encourage even more parents to apply for programs that already have lengthy wait lists. In 2014, over 5,500 families applied for one of the 2,400 Opportunity Scholarship grants. This year, up to 6,000 eligible students from disadvantaged families may be denied a $4,200 voucher if legislators choose to maintain the arbitrary cap on funding currently in place. Moreover, 500 additional students have applied for a $3,000 per semester special-needs scholarship, but a similar funding cap on this program will leave many deserving students emptyhanded.
Applicant figures suggest that North Carolina parents want more, not fewer, educational options, and polls agree. According to a recent Civitas Institute survey, 60 percent of registered unaffiliated voters in the state believe that North Carolina should move toward allowing more choice in K-12 education for parents and children. Support for boosting educational options cuts across demographic, political, and ideological groups.
Sadly, current funding levels deprive too many families the means to secure a better future for their children. As legislators continue to work through the state budget, full funding for North Carolina’s low-income and special-needs scholarship programs should be a priority.
A $21 million boost for the current year and subsequent demand-based increases represent only a fraction of North Carolina’s more than $12 billion public education budget. The investment is small, but the returns are enormous.
In the end, it is not just a matter of demonstrating fidelity to the Republican Party platform or satisfying key political constituencies. Rather, it is affirming a commitment to a core principle – parental school choice – that has the potential to transform the education and lives of those North Carolina children who need that transformation the most.
Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.