North Carolina families win with passage of universal ed choice eligiblity


The Tar Heel State held its 2023 celebration of National School Choice Week at the North Carolina State Museum of History in Raleigh. Photo courtesy of National School Choice Week

And North Carolina makes nine. After a transformative year in which lawmakers in more than a dozen states either created new learning options for children in K-12 schools or expanded existing opportunities, North Carolina officials adopted a budget that includes a provision making their state the ninth in the U.S. that empowers all families with the ability to choose how and where their children learn.

Tar Heel legislators expanded the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program to allow every child in North Carolina—some 1.4 million students—to apply for a private-school scholarship. Scholarship award amounts will be staggered based on family income, with students from low-income families receiving the largest amounts: Students eligible for federal school meals will receive vouchers worth the full portion of the child’s state funding from the state education formula, and the awards continue along a sliding scale for children from middle- and upper-income families.

Notably, families have other private-school scholarship opportunities that can be combined with the Opportunity Scholarships. Children with special needs can apply for education savings accounts, which allow parents to customize their student’s education by purchasing textbooks, paying for education therapy and more. Under the Opportunity Scholarship’s new provisions, a child with special needs who was using an ESA but did not qualify for a scholarship will be able to access both.

The ability to combine ESAs and scholarships in this way is an important feature. According to research, a sizeable share — 64 percent — of ESA parents use their child’s account for more than one item or service, which means access to a scholarship will help them afford private school tuition and additional services critical to their child’s success.

Children from persistently failing schools who also have special needs often need more than the services offered during a traditional school day. These students benefit from personal tutors and other learning options such as online classes. In fact, my report produced by the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina explains that parents have already been using a combination of accounts and scholarships, though the number of accounts awarded each year is strictly limited by law.

This year, lawmakers in Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Utah created new education savings account or account-style options for children, while Florida and Ohio officials expanded existing private learning opportunities to all children in their states.

These inclusive accounts and scholarships are necessary in more places today because, in some locales, every child is failing. Researchers have found that in 13 assigned schools in Baltimore, Maryland, a grand total of zero students scored proficient in math. Nearly 75 percent of students at these schools scored at the lowest possible level.

Baltimore may be an extreme case, but nationwide, students in almost every urban school system that participated in the nation’s report card scored lower in fourth and eighth grade math in 2022 than in 2019, (scores for a small handful of districts were unchanged). Two North Carolina school districts, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Guilford County were among those that posted lower scores on these latest assessments.

It is only fitting that when every child is struggling to succeed in assigned schools that lawmakers would make every child eligible to find help somewhere else.

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BY Jonathan Butcher

Jonathan Butcher is senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy's Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.