A new study by N.C. State University highlights positive academic effects of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program. The study is the first to look at how the program influences student achievement.

The General Assembly approved the Opportunity Scholarship program in 2013. The program launched during the 2014-15 school year. Low-income families are awarded up to $4,200 a year in vouchers for their children to attend the private school of their choice. Almost $53 million has been awarded to families so far.

In spring 2017, researchers, using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in math and reading, analyzed the academic performance of 698 students in public and private schools.

The researchers found, in general, new voucher recipients scored significantly higher than their public school counterparts in math, reading, and language arts. Existing voucher recipients scored significantly higher than their public school counterparts in language arts and higher in math and reading.

“It may be the case that the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program truly has a positive impact on student achievement, perhaps because it reaches highly economically disadvantaged students who have few school choice options in the absence of the program and perhaps the highest potential for academic growth, as a result,” the study reads.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the results aren’t surprising.

“The N.C. State study confirms what Opportunity Scholarship supporters have always suspected — low-income students receive meaningful academic benefits in the private schools they choose to attend,” Stoops said. “Not only are families happier in their private school of choice, children learn more. Both are compelling reasons for the state to continue its investment in the Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

The researchers said other factors may explain for the positive results, including whether the chosen test unfairly gives private school students an advantage or if the design of the study itself affected the results. Because the study relied on volunteers, the sample could be composed of high academic performers.

N.C. State researchers, who surveyed parents on their opinions of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, found that 94 percent of parents gave their new private school an A or B; 73 percent gave their previous public school a C or a lower grade.

About a third of parents said the reason for leaving their public school was school quality. A quarter said school safety was the chief reason.

Since the program began, more than 50,000 parents have applied for the vouchers. More than 7,000 students used Opportunity Scholarships to attend the school of their choice in the 2017-18 school year.

The authors of the study will discuss their findings at 12 noon Monday, June 25, as part of the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society presentations.