On Thursday, the state Senate voted to clear the waitlist for the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to families who want to send their child to a private school. On Monday, the state House is likely to follow suit. Making this among the General Assembly’s first moves of the 2024 short session is a powerful message to send to the state’s parents. And, to use language often applied to government spending, it is a “good investment.”

Only about 16,000 of the nearly 72,000 applications for the OSP vouchers were initially approved before funding ran out. Consequently, the remaining 54,000 were then placed on the waitlist. Those from lower-income “tiers” received the first priority, with 13,511 of the scholarships granted coming from the lowest tier. Another 2,000 students were on a waitlist for an Education Student Account Plus scholarship, which allows children with disabilities to choose a private school of their choice in a similar way.

House Bill 823 provides $248 million to clear the current OSP waitlist and another $25 million to clear the current ESA+ waitlist. In addition to that nonrecurring funding, it adds $215.5 million of recurring funds to prevent future waitlists.

“Education dollars should follow students, no matter what school they attend,” state Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Education committees, said in a press release. “Clearing these waitlists fulfills our commitment to families from across the state that want a stronger say in their child’s education. From public schools to public charter schools, and private schools, North Carolina is at the forefront of school choice and education freedom.”

But not everyone was excited about the news, with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, saying the bill “takes taxpayer money from public schools and gives it to the wealthy for private school vouchers.” National school-choice spokesperson Corey DeAngelis called Cooper a hypocrite, since Cooper sent his own child to a private school. The fact that priority for the scholarships always goes to the lowest-income tiers, not “the wealthy,” also escaped the governor.

Of course, there are frequently debates, in our state and around the nation, about which government appropriations are “good investments” and which aren’t. Education, public safety, and infrastructure are generally accepted as good investments, in theory if not in practice, but the agreement quickly disappears beyond that.

Many investments that the government makes are public-private partnerships where the aim on behalf of the public is achieved through a private delivery mechanism. In addition to private contractors, examples of this include food stamps (where government money is spent wherever the recipient wants to purchase food) and housing vouchers (where government money is paid to a private landlord).

Some Democrats in the state, including Cooper in his recently released budget, have called for vouchers to also be provided to families to spend at private child-care centers. During floor debate, state Sen. Amy Galey, a Republican from Alamance County (where my children attend daycare), asked state Sen. Glady Robinson, D-Guilford, why she was so in favor of granting vouchers to private child cares but so opposed to providing vouchers to private schools.

As an aside, I oppose paying for child care for the state’s children, because I think it transfers yet another important role from the family to the state. And, unlike K-12 education, it is not a constitutionally mandated government function. But the question from Galey is still a very important one. Why are progressives okay with using private actors to deliver so many other services using government funds, but not for schooling?

Is it because government is just so much better at providing education? A brief comparison of test scores among private school students, homeschool students, and public school students should lay that argument to rest.

Is it because, like the police and military, there needs to be a monopoly to maintain public safety or national security? I can’t really see why that would be the case either.

No. The real reason more likely has to do with another comment by Galey during the debate, where she said progressives just don’t want to give up control because they want their beliefs to continue to be the default. In a nation with such diverse views, and which was founded as a place that protects the right to hold them, a public monopoly on education makes little sense.

Investing in private-school vouchers is a good investment because it allows people with all of these diverse views to choose the school that suits their family’s needs best. It empowers them. It gives them freedom. It allows them to pass on the values and worldview they believe will give their child the best chance to flourish.

A system that does not allow that, and forces a one-size-fits-all education, inevitably leads to the constant battles we’ve seen in school board meetings across the country. It would make just as much sense to force all food-stamp recipients and housing voucher recipients to get their meals and housing from assigned government-run sources.

Those with opposing values are much better off educating their children in places that align with their values, rather than fighting a never-ending war over curriculum and school policies. Making this a reality is a good investment — accomplishing an agreed-upon function of government in a way that is efficient and empowers people by giving them more choices and freedom.