North Carolina's Universal School Choice Reform Empowers Parents
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North Carolina just became the 10th U.S. state to implement "universal" school choice, effectively removing barriers to a state program that provides tuition assistance for students attending private schools. This transformative move is set to reshape educational access and opportunities across the state.
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Photo credit: Kenny Eliason
9/26/2023 (2 months ago)
Published in U.S.
North Carolina's General Assembly delivered the final approval on September 22 for a new state budget that carries a bold vision. This budget aims to triple funding for the state's Opportunity Scholarship program while eliminating income restrictions for private school vouchers. As reported by the Charlotte News & Observer, starting from the 2024-2025 academic year, every North Carolina family will have the opportunity to apply for tuition assistance to enroll their children in K-12 private schools.
The Opportunity Scholarship program, which has been in operation since 2013, initially offered funding of up to $5,928 annually for eligible children choosing to attend participating nonpublic schools. Notably, this figure has now risen to $6,492 for the 2023-2024 school year.
During the 2022-2023 school year, the program provided assistance to nearly 25,600 students, according to self-reported data. Of the 544 nonpublic schools participating in the program, the top 71 recipients of funding were all religious institutions, underscoring the diverse educational landscape supported by the program.
The new budget represents a significant policy shift. It eliminates the income requirement that previously hindered many families from accessing these vital scholarships. Moreover, it removes a requirement linked to prior enrollment in a public school, ensuring that more students have the opportunity to explore alternative educational pathways.
To fund this progressive program, the North Carolina budget outlines a substantial increase in support for the Opportunity Scholarship program. Over the coming decade, funding is projected to nearly triple, exceeding half a billion dollars by the 2032-2033 fiscal year.
The program's financial structure ensures that individual voucher amounts vary based on the family's income level. As reported by the News & Observer, the state's wealthiest families will receive 45% of the amount the state spends per public school student, while the lowest-income families will gain access to the full $6,492.
Jennifer Feldhaus, principal of Infant of Prague Catholic School in Jacksonville, North Carolina, highlights the profound impact of the Opportunity Scholarship program. She notes that approximately 42% of the school's students were recipients of these scholarships, effectively making quality education more accessible to families. She expressed, "It's been a tremendous program for Catholic schools because what was considered before unreachable, whether on income or location, is now an option for families."
Early 2023 data from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) underscores the broader impact of parental choice programs in Catholic education. Nationally, 10.5% of Catholic school students utilize such programs, with 27.6% of Catholic schools enrolling students through these initiatives. In states like Arizona and Indiana, nearly all of the state's Catholic schools actively participate in school choice programs.
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The NCEA collaborates with U.S. bishops and other organizations to advocate for school choice. The organization's President and CEO, Lincoln Snyder, explains that the Catholic Church strongly believes in empowering parents to select the best education for their children. These choice programs are significantly bolstering Catholic school enrollments, making quality education more accessible to families.
In 2023, seven states embraced "universal" school choice programs, signifying a growing trend. According to the advocacy group EdChoice, nearly one in five students now resides in a state offering universal or near-universal school choice.
Sister Dale McDonald, PBVM, Vice President of Public Policy at NCEA, emphasizes the importance of North Carolina's schools encouraging parents to apply for vouchers. She notes that public funds generated by parents and teachers at private schools make it just and fair for private school students to receive their share. In North Carolina, where the state's Catholic school student population is relatively small, universal school choice signifies a significant step toward equality in education access.
Although universal school choice has primarily gained traction in Republican-led states, it is not without its share of debates. In North Carolina, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper allowed the budget to become law without his signature, despite concerns about its impact on public schools.
Making school choice a bipartisan issue remains a significant challenge. Sister Dale McDonald remarks that supporting children's education should transcend politics, focusing instead on addressing the needs of individual students rather than the demands of educational systems.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church underscores the role of parents as the primary educators of their children. It asserts that parents retain the right to both teach their children the morals imparted by the Church and to choose a school that aligns with their convictions. This perspective is echoed by polling conducted by CNA's parent organization, EWTN, indicating that two-thirds of U.S. Catholic parents support policies that allow students to use public education funds for schools that best fit their children's needs.
North Carolina's pioneering move towards universal school choice signals a significant shift in the educational landscape. It promises to provide families with more options and equal access to quality education, regardless of income or location. While the program is not without its critics, it represents a profound commitment to empowering parents and students to make choices that best suit their needs and aspirations.
In the words of Sister Dale McDonald, "It's fair, it's justice, to give our kids a share of the money that their parents' taxes generate." Universal school choice is not just a policy shift; it's a reaffirmation of the fundamental belief that every child deserves a quality education that aligns with their family's values and aspirations.
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