Mar 20, 2024 - News

Not all North Carolina private schools accept vouchers

Illustration of an apple with a ticket voucher for a leaf.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Public funding for a private school education is open to all North Carolina families. But many of the state's top private schools — from Providence Day in Charlotte to Ravenscroft School in Raleigh — don't accept it.

Why it matters: Families rushed to apply for state funding last month, with a record nearly 72,000 submitting new applications. There likely won't be enough money to cover every applicant.

  • What's more, many North Carolina students receiving vouchers attend religious schools.

Catch up quick: North Carolina lawmakers approved a state budget last September that included a controversial line to increase public dollars for private school tuition to $293.5 million for the upcoming school year.

  • It opened the Opportunity Scholarship program, commonly called vouchers, to families across the state regardless of income level.
  • It also removed the requirement for students to attend a public school before enrolling in a private one.

Between the lines: Much of the debate over vouchers across the country comes down to critics saying the programs pull public money away from public schools to the benefit of private institutions — while voucher supporters claim they provide families with school choice.

  • Expanding the Opportunity Scholarship program "is about kids first, about families being able to make the best decisions for their child," Rep. Tricia Cotham (R) of Mecklenburg County, said last year.
North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship program amounts and recipients
Data: North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority; Table: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: The number of students receiving vouchers for the 2022-23 school year increased from 25,568 statewide to 32,511 for 2023-2024.

  • North Carolina has 884 private schools, 103 of which are in Mecklenburg County as of July 2023, per state data. The Triangle has 143 private schools between Wake, Durham and Orange counties.

Yes, but: Only 64 schools in Mecklenburg accept Opportunity Scholarships, according to the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. In the Triangle, 101 accept Opportunity Scholarships.

  • Some of the state's most prominent schools, like Charlotte Latin School, Providence Day School, Charlotte Country Day, Ravenscroft School and Cary Academy do not accept vouchers.
  • "If families have visions of attending those sorts of marquee schools with these vouchers, I don't think that's going to happen," UNC Charlotte professor Jason Giersch tells Axios.

Case in point: Charlotte Latin is familiar with the Opportunity Scholarship program, and is "monitoring the requirements," a school spokesperson tells Axios.

  • Many private schools have their own forms of financial aid and scholarships. At Charlotte Country Day, for instance, 356 students received $8.6 million in financial assistance during the 2022-23 academic year, a school spokesperson tells Axios.
  • These schools also have waitlists, making spots hard to come by.

Many of the Triangle's most prestigious private schools do not accept Opportunity Scholarships either, though many offer their own forms of financial assistance.

  • Ravenscroft School says it gives out $3.4 million per year in financial aid. That is more than any school got in Opportunity Scholarship funds.
  • Others, like Durham Academy, say they are still studying the potential of the program. "We have begun our due diligence process and remain open to the possibility of participating in the Opportunity Scholarship program in the future," a statement to Axios read.

The intrigue: Religious schools will feel the greatest impact from Opportunity Scholarship expansion, Giersch says. These schools tend to have lower tuition.

  • Among them are Mecklenburg County's nine Catholic schools, which had 283 Opportunity Scholarship students for the current school year, says Gregory Monroe​, Superintendent of Catholic Diocese of Charlotte Schools. They received $1.5 million through the program, per state data.
  • Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools, or MACS, provides roughly $4.5 million annually to families demonstrating financial need, plus scholarships funded by private donors and endowments, according to a MACS spokesperson.
  • St. David's School in Raleigh did not report getting an Opportunity Scholarship money for the 2023-2024 school year. But on its website it now directs all current and prospective students to "take a closer look and to apply."

Zoom out: Debate over funding public education also comes at a time when more and more families are leaving public schools for private schools and charter schools. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School's current enrollment of 141,166, per a district spokesperson, down from 147,000 in 2018-19.

  • Public school enrollment helps determine how much funding the state allocates to districts.
  • School choice advocates argue their tax dollars shouldn't go to a school where their child isn't enrolled; public school proponents say the same about private schools.

What's next: New student applications submitted Feb. 1-March 1 will be entered into a lottery and families notified of their selection in early April, per NCSEAA. Opportunity Scholarships will be distributed based on tier until funds run out.

  • Funding will be renewed for students who received Opportunity Scholarships in 2023-24 before the lottery occurs.

The big picture: The state has long been a battleground for education, and it continues to become more polarizing. The results of the November election will shape likely shape the future of eduction in the state.

  • N.C. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (R) and state Attorney General Josh Stein (D) will face off in one of the most closely watched governor's races in the country.
  • Robinson supports vouchers, while Stein says vouchers allow Republican lawmakers to "effectively take money from public schools."
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