Thursday marks the anniversary of a major victory in the fight for educational freedom in North Carolina. Five years ago, the General Assembly established the Opportunity Scholarship Program, enabling low-income children to use state-funded scholarships to attend private school. This past school year, nearly 7,400 students statewide relied on Opportunity Scholarships to open doors of educational opportunity. Their ongoing freedom to do so is due in large part to educational pioneers like Charlotte’s Janet Nunn and her granddaughter, Nariah, who believed in the program even as it faced an uncertain future.
Progress demands pioneers — those with the vision to see what’s possible and the tenacity to see it through. Still, the path to progress is rarely smooth. Janet Nunn advocated for an Opportunity Scholarship in 2015, even as the program’s future was in jeopardy. At that time, the program was mired in litigation. Thousands of families, including hers, anxiously awaited the outcome of a legal challenge to the program’s constitutionality. Her granddaughter Nariah had been awarded a scholarship in 2014, but that opportunity was hanging in the balance.
That court battle was ultimately successful. Three years ago, on July 23, 2015, the N.C. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling upholding the Opportunity Scholarship Program’s constitutionality. Janet enrolled Nariah in Victory Christian Center School in Charlotte. She was hopeful but clear-eyed about the path ahead, both for Nariah and the program. Nariah’s early start to schooling had been difficult. She read below the first grade level and struggled with confidence. And then there was the opposition to the program — even after the court ruling, could it survive?
But Janet forged ahead. Now, three years after Nariah’s scholarship journey began, three years after the court rendered its decision, and five years after the legislature established the program, much has changed for the better. A rising fourth-grader, Nariah is a straight-A student with the confidence to tackle challenges on her own. Janet’s desperation has lifted.What did receiving a scholarship mean to her? “My reaction was joy. My reaction was thankfulness. My reaction was my prayers being answered,” she says.
Like other pioneers, Janet and Nariah point the way to something better. There are thousands of Janet Nunns across North Carolina — parents and grandparents whose hopes for children are being renewed through the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Program numbers bear witness to five years of progress and possibilities. For the upcoming school year, families submitted almost 11,000 new applications for Opportunity Scholarships, a 95 percent increase since 2014-15 when the program first launched. More than 7,500 new scholarships have been offered to families for 2018-19.
Early academic evaluation is encouraging. In June, independent researchers from NC State University released findings from the first-ever academic analysis of the program, revealing “large, positive impacts” on student achievement associated with using a scholarship. Follow-up studies are needed, but this early report card represents very good news.
Expect more scholarships to open up for low-income families. In 2016, legislators expanded program funding by $10 million annually through 2028-29, creating up to 2,000 new scholarships each year. Additional academic evaluation of the program should be forthcoming. This spring, a state task force, on which our organization served, submitted recommendations for future evaluation to the General Assembly.
Five years in, here’s what we know for sure: School choice is working. It’s working for Janet Nunn and Nariah. It’s working for thousands of other low-income parents, who now have the freedom to choose the right school for their child. That’s what we celebrate today. Progress. And possibilities.
Brian Jodice is the interim president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.