The North Carolina General Assembly is about to make all children eligible for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program. They won’t all receive the same amounts — poor and middle-income families will be eligible for vouchers in the range of $6,500 to $7,200 per student, while upper-income households will receive much less. Nevertheless, both proponents and opponents are quite properly using the term “universal” to describe the policy, which will go into effect for the 2024-25 academic year.
School-choice advocates are ecstatic. Critics are despondent. Although my sympathies here are evident and longstanding, I think it would behoove both sides to temper their expectations a bit. There won’t be a gigantic exodus of children from district-run public schools in the fall of 2024.
For one thing, North Carolina’s current private schools don’t have the capacity to absorb such an enrollment boom. One of the best arguments for choice programs is their potential to foster entrepreneurship in education. Just as the creation of charters gave educators, parents, and reformers the capacity to develop new models for public education, voucher expansion will give existing providers the capacity to add new grades and campuses while creating opportunities for new entrants to the K-12 space.
It can’t all happen in a year, though. It takes time to assemble teams, build or rent facilities, hire faculty, and develop content.
Furthermore, while some families will immediately take advantage of scholarships for which they’ll be newly eligible, many others will be intrigued but cautious. They’ll do their homework about what private options are already available, where new schools will open, and when they calculate the benefits of transferring their children will exceed the costs (which aren’t purely monetary, of course).
Still other families will have little interest in taking advantage of opportunity scholarships at all, either because they’re satisfied with the education their children are receiving in public schools — district or charter — or because they don’t like the private options available.
Many voucher foes are convinced the program is part of an elaborate conspiracy to destroy public schools. They’re mistaken, but I know they won’t take my word for it. Over the coming years, I expect the facts on the ground to make my point for me.
The leaders of North Carolina’s school districts aren’t just going to stand around and wait for new or expanding private schools to recruit their students away. They’re going to try to enhance their services to protect their enrollments. This is not a guess. This is how comparable markets already work. Federal and state taxpayers already subsidize scholarships and loans for students whether they attend private universities or public ones. Patients can spend Medicare or Medicaid dollars at Catholic hospitals if they wish. Parents can use child-care subsidies at church-run preschools.
Moreover, we already know from decades of empirical research that when public elementary and secondary schools are subject to increased competition from private alternatives, they improve. They hire better teachers. Their students score higher on reading and math tests. They graduate at higher rates.
Before 2023, the General Assembly spent many years debating policy issues in public education. They discussed how to train and compensate principals and teachers, how to teach youngsters to read, and how to shape the curriculum. Nothing that happens this session will end any of these debates. Legislators and policymakers will go on reforming public education, the provision of which will remain a constitutional obligation and a practical necessity.
Expanding the Opportunity Scholarship program this session represents only the beginning of a process that will unfold over many years. If you think you know exactly what the resulting market for K-12 education will look like, you’re fooling yourself. But if you think that future market for K-12 education promises to be more rigorous, more creative, more accommodating of diverse interests and values, and better suited to helping young North Carolinians thrive and prosper, then you and I agree.
Change is coming. But it won’t come overnight.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).