School vouchers are a complex subject with a long history

Published 6:10 pm Friday, February 2, 2024

As I mentioned in last week’s column, school vouchers have been one of the hot education topics in North Carolina recently. And there is an excellent explainer article on Education NC’s website that gives an overview of the history of these kinds of programs and reasons why people support or oppose them.

To put it simply, a school voucher is government funding that is provided to parents to cover the costs of tuition for students at private schools.

Since our politicians in Raleigh continue to focus heavily on school vouchers and school choice, I thought it might be useful to share information from that Education NC article. The debate may not affect you directly if you don’t have children or grandchildren, but it still has the potential to affect plenty of people you know – students, their families, school staff, etc – all across the state.

I was surprised to learn that vouchers aren’t a new thing at all. The earliest voucher programs began in Vermont and Maine (in the late 1800s) to help provide education opportunities to children living in small, rural towns that didn’t have their own public schools.

Beginning in the 1950s, private school vouchers were often used as a way to avoid integration.

“Six states, including North Carolina, passed ‘tuition grant’ laws during this time period in an attempt to evade integration,” explained the article.

It also referenced two examples in Little Rock, Arkansas and Prince Edward County, Virginia where the politicians in charge opted to shut down and defund their public schools instead of letting students of both races attend school together. During the closures, white students had access to vouchers that would send them to the local private schools. Black students, however, did not and missed out on the education they deserved.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the perception of private school vouchers began to shift. Wisconsin State Rep. Polly Williams, a Black leader, was one of the biggest advocates for school vouchers as a way for poor and minority children to receive better education at local private schools instead of the struggling public schools.

This is generally the kind of school vouchers that are often available today. Before the North Carolina’s state legislators dropped the income requirements last year, the state’s “Opportunity Scholarship” program (created in 2013) was meant to help students with disabilities or low-income families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition.

There’s a growing trend recently where states open up their voucher programs to all students, instead of just specific groups.

So that’s the place we’re at now, and that’s why school vouchers continue to be a subject of debate.

According to the article, there are eight common themes surrounding the debate. I think those are important to know to help people decide how they feel about the program.

First theme: student achievement. Switching to a different school may have an affect on the student, but research isn’t clear yet on whether that’s a positive or negative effect. And it’s hard to tell for sure because public and private schools often have different testing requirements and curriculums that aren’t very comparable.

Second theme: free-market competition. Some who support school vouchers say that education should be like the business world where competition is suppose to drive innovation and achievement. Opponents, however, say that education shouldn’t be viewed through that lens because it’s not a consumable product.

Third theme: individual parent school choice. Proponents simply say that it’s up to the parents to choose their child’s education. The article notes, however, that sometimes there are unanticipated costs with private schools – such as not offering transportation or reduced-price lunches – which can limit “school choice” options.

Fourth theme: racial segregation. While things aren’t the same as they were in the 1960s, race can still play a factor in why people support or oppose voucher programs. Some research suggests that school vouchers perhaps lead to better racial integration these days.

Fifth theme: public school funding. Some say vouchers are a better use of taxpayer dollars, while others are disappointed that public schools are losing funding, especially because private schools do not always offer all of the same education services (such as special education programs).

Sixth theme: at-risk student populations. As mentioned earlier in this column, many voucher programs have recently shifted away from helping specific groups of students to where they are now available to everyone. Some may question the intent of voucher programs with these new parameters.

Seventh theme: separation of church and state. While the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that school vouchers are constitutional, some still argue that public funds should not be going to schools with religious affiliations.

Eighth theme: oversight and accountability. Private schools aren’t beholden to the state standards of accountability that traditional public schools are. The article mentions that North Carolina’s accountability and oversight for the Opportunity Scholarship program is one of the weakest in the United States. So there’s not much data to help determine if a school switch is actually beneficial.

After reading all of those points, I’m not exactly sure where I stand on vouchers just yet. There can be benefits, especially for certain groups of people. But I do think the state’s continued expansion of the program is excessive and unnecessary, when those tax dollars could be helping turn around struggling public schools instead.

And the last argument – accountability and oversight – is a sticking point for me too. If legislators are going to insist on sending tax money to these schools, there should at least be a better way to make sure those funds aren’t going to waste.

These are all important things to consider and to keep an eye on as our representatives in Raleigh continue to make educational decisions.

To read the full article, visit ednc.org and search under “Perspective” for “Debating school choice: A historical overview of private school vouchers.”

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.