Fayetteville area leads in private school vouchers as NC may expand program

By Myron B. Pitts
The Fayetteville Observer
A North Carolina school voucher program that provides public money for students to attend private schools has found a receptive audience in Cumberland County.
The county — with 2,148 recipients — leads all others in the state in the number of students who received Opportunity Scholarships for the 2022-23 school year, according to figures provided by the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority.Next is Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, with 1,688 recipients, followed by Wake County, home of the state’s largest school system, with 1,597 recipients.
Allison Guenther of Fayetteville said she is not surprised that Cumberland County has led both in the number of applications and the number of recipients of Opportunity Scholarships for years. She is vice president of External Affairs for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which supports vouchers and provides resources for families seeking them.

Guenther said part of what is driving parents in Cumberland County could be that 80% of the county schools fall in the C or below grade range on the North Carolina School Report Card, an assessment by the state Department of Public Instruction. 

Guenther cautioned, however, that the report card is not the “end-all-be-all on the health of a school,” and several factors could drive a parent's decision to seek out a private school. She also said she does not see vouchers and public schools as competing but as giving parents different choices. Public school, she said, is absolutely the best choice for some students and families.

Guenther has a daughter in second grade in private school — not through the Opportunity Scholarship program. It was a decision driven by the pandemic, which closed county public schools during the spring and fall of 2020, she said. It had not been part of the plan.

“It was a bit out of what we thought would happen,” she says, adding that another daughter would start kindergarten soon and they planned to also enroll her in private school. “Schools in Cumberland County were closed so long, we were unsure of what to do.”

Controversial program

The N.C. General Assembly, the state legislature, established the Opportunity Scholarship program in 2013. The scholarships provide up to $4,200 a year for tuition and fees at private schools for students who are low- and middle-income and who meet the financial requirements.

The program is not inexpensive and has been controversial. The total amount for scholarships for 2022-23 is $132 million, according to the Education Assistance Authority. There are 25,429 recipients, which includes new recipients and students who renewed their scholarships.

There are proposed expansions to vouchers in the state legislature, including Senate Bill 406, which would remove income requirements and make vouchers available to all students.

Support in the legislature has overwhelmingly come from Republicans, who believe it gives parents a way to get their children out of failing public schools into a private school that better suits their needs.

Critics include many of the state’s Democrats and the N.C. Association of Educators, a teacher advocacy group. They say the vouchers hand public money raised by taxpayers to private schools. This, they believe, potentially reduces the amount of money available to traditional public schools that already lack resources and where 87% of North Carolina students are educated.

Carolina Forward, a left-leaning publication that covers state news and policy, recently published an article about the planned expansion. The headline read: The War on Public Schools Continues.

The Education Assistance Authority presents a statewide snapshot of the demographics of scholarship recipients. By race, 61% of recipients are white, 20% are Black, 2% are American Indian or Alaskan Native and 2% are Asian. Eleven percent are two are more races. In terms of ethnicity, 15% of recipients are Hispanic.

The site does not break down demographics by county.

Boost for local private schools

The Education Authority lists at its site 544 private schools, which it designates as nonpublic schools, that have enrolled recipients of Opportunity Scholarships. 

Trinity Christian School of Fayetteville is second on the state's list of number of students using the scholarship, with 369 recipients for the 2022-23 school year. The state leader is Grace Christian School in Sanford with 371 recipients.

Other Cumberland County private schools on the list with at least 100 or more recipients include Berean Baptist Academy; Fayetteville Christian School; Freedom Christian Academy; Northwood Temple Academy; Cornerstone Christian Academy; Riverside Christian Academy; and Village Christian Academy.

When it comes to new applicants seeking scholarships, Cumberland County again leads the pack with 1,770, according to the Education Assistance Authority. Mecklenburg is second at 1,754, then Wake at 1,585, and Guilford, where Greensboro is located, at 1,169.

Guenther said she was again not surprised. In a 2017 study by N.C. State University, parents said they learned about the scholarships most often through word of mouth. 

“Once you have a satisfied customer, so to speak, they talk about it,” she said. 

Cumberland County Schools: We have choices

Cumberland County Schools enrolls more than 49,000 students. A system spokesperson said the district's focus is not on competing with vouchers but on providing students with a quality education with plenty of choices within the system.

“As a school system, we certainly respect families having the right to choose how and where their child should be educated,” Lindsay Whitley of the school system said in a statement. “As a premier school district in North Carolina, Cumberland County Schools takes pride in the concept of choice, and being known as a school system that offers choices. We have a variety of innovative, educational options for students through our Choice Program because we realize that one size does not fit all.”

Whitley said educational options offered by Cumberland County Schools include early college; year-round schooling; classical studies and language immersion classes and programs; as well as the arts; programs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math); information technology; global studies and health services/public safety classes and programs. The programs are tailored to meet the diverse needs of students, “while challenging them to grow personally and excel academically,” Whitley said.

Cumberland County Schools has something for every child to help them succeed, Whitley said. 

“We truly believe that we are the best choice — community schools with everything each child needs,” he said.