Thousands of families seek school vouchers in North Carolina as program expands

By Samuel King

February 22, 2024

The deadline is approaching for families to apply for the newly-expanded Opportunity Scholarship program in North Carolina.

It provides thousands of dollars to students to attend private schools in the state. Supporters tout the expansion as a victory for parent choice when it comes to education. Opponents believe it has the potential to harm public schools.

The program was initially intended for low-income families, but last year, the North Carolina General Assembly made all school-age students eligible for scholarships or vouchers beginning in the fall of 2024.

So far at least 51,000 families have applied ahead of a March 1 deadline, which is far more than the 32,341 students already in the program.

The money is available on a sliding scale based on income from $7,468 for families with lower incomes to $3,360 for families with higher incomes. That money is then directly paid to the schools.

Beacon Christian Academy in Kitty Hawk is among the schools waiting to see what the impact of the expanded program will be.

“I’ve already talked to families who are really excited for a chance for the kids to come and the opportunity scholarship can mean the difference between attending here and not,” said Nathan Soule, the school’s administrator. “Any kind of opportunity for the families to have the kids together and for them to be here in a way that’s not going to strain them financially, I think it’s great for everybody.”

But opponents have raised questions about the impact on public school funding and equal access to quality education.

“The funding for traditional public schools is based on per pupil,” said Keith Rivers, head of the Pasquotank County Branch of the NAACP. "And when you start to lose students from the traditional public school system to the private school system, they lose that federal funding, that local supplement."

The North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management found the expanded program would result in a more than $200 million loss to public school funding assuming 50% of scholarships go to current public school students.

Pasquotank County could see a 5% decline in state funding; Hertford County could see a 4% decline.

Pasquotank County has five of the only 14 schools in the News 3 viewing area in North Carolina that are eligible for opportunity scholarship students.

Mike Long with Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina said the program could actually lead to more flexibility when it comes to public school funding in the long-term. He pointed out traditional public school enrollment is still down from pre-COVID levels.

“Perhaps more of those public school funds can be funneled more to the rural areas that have less opportunities like this as far as a private school or so forth ... as opposed to just throwing money to somewhere with seats decreasing in their occupancy,” Long said.

Families would be notified in early April if they have received an award. There will likely be more applications than money that is available.

In that case, some families will be placed on a waiting list in case funds become available later in the year.