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Private school choice initiatives are state-sponsored scholarship programs that offset the cost of school tuition, and in some cases related services, for families. Some states, including North Carolina, provide tuition scholarships directly to families; other states have passed programs creating education tax credits for taxpayers who give money to scholarship granting organizations. Some programs allow individuals to receive a tax credit or deduction for education expenses, including tuition.
Private school choice programs are generally created to serve the needs of families that otherwise would not be able to afford private school tuition. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, passed in 1990, is the nation’s longest-running contemporary private school choice initiative.
In 2011, North Carolina offered a tax credit to students with disabilities to provide flexibility in attending a private school and in 2013 North Carolina joined the ranks of states with private school choice programs for low-income students when the General Assembly passed the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). In 2023, the General Assembly enacted historic expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, meaning all NC K12 families are eligible for the program.
While eligibility is open to all students, the Opportunity Scholarship Program maintains its original intent, ensuring low-income families have priority to receive a scholarship. The Opportunity Scholarship amount is based on a family’s household income and is tied to a percentage of per pupil public school spending, ranging from $3,000 to $7,000 for the 2024-25 school year. Scholarships are renewable annually.
OSP has experienced surging popularity and growth with each successive year. To date, North Carolina families have submitted more than 150,000 applications for these scholarships. Forward-funding by the North Carolina General Assembly will ensure OSP continues to expand over the next decade. Click here for PEFNC's 1-pager on OSP, and program eligibility. Click here for PEFNC's 1-pager on OSP, and program eligibility.
Fast Facts on the Opportunity Scholarship Program:
- Over 32,000 students are enrolled using an Opportunity Scholarship for the 2023-24 school year.
- Over 587 North Carolina private schools currently enroll Opportunity Scholarship students. The number of participating private schools with students enrolled has risen by 162% since 2014-15.
Learn more here about eligibility requirements, application deadlines, and your estimated scholarship amount
Special needs school choice programs help families meet the unique educational challenges and gifts of their children who have disabilities. These publicly-funded programs enable students to attend the school that best addresses their particular needs while offsetting the burden of tuition for their families.
In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Children with Disabilities Tax Credit which was converted into a reimbursable grant program.
In 2017 the North Carolina General Assembly created a second state-sponsored special needs school choice program, the Special Needs Education Savings Account (ESA). Beginning with the 2022-23 school year, these two programs were combined and are now known today as ESA+. This program provides eligible students with a student account and $9,000 that can be used for tuition or related services, like educational therapies. For students with certain diagnoses and higher needs, they may be eligible for $17,000. A unique aspect of this program is that it provides flexibility for a student who wants to attend private school part-time and public school part-time.
This program has historically been underfunded until a significant investment was made in the NC budget that provides forward-funding through 2032-33. There were over 3,300 students using an ESA+ account for the 2022-23 school year. Learn more about Special Needs ESAs at exceptionalednc.org, or download a 1-pager about the ESA here.