Rob Schofield

The list of shortcomings and failures associated with North Carolina’s decade-long experiment with private school vouchers (aka “Opportunity Scholarships”) is a long and sobering one.

Though originally pitched and sold as a tool that would lift student performance and achievement by providing low-income families with a greater degree of “school choice,” there’s no evidence that kids attending voucher schools have experienced any such renaissance.

The North Carolina schools that receive the funds are almost completely unaccountable and under no obligation to meet meaningful standards, so collecting and dissecting hard data is extremely difficult. A 2020 Duke University report, however, cast significant doubt on the program’s performance. Meanwhile, in states where thorough study has been possible — Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, the District of Columbia – voucher student performance and achievement have both lagged.

There are other significant red flags associated with the program:

Voucher schools frequently discriminate against children and families on the basis of their religious beliefs and sexual orientation.

Many employ curricula grounded in religious fundamentalism and white supremacy that teach factually inaccurate lessons in science (denying the reality of evolution) and history (presenting a sanitized version of the enslavement of African Americans).

Despite these problems and having already spent millions of dollars to no evident and measurable positive effect, state lawmakers are preparing to dramatically expand the program. Legislation making its way through the General Assembly would alter the program so that eligibility – originally limited to lower-income families and later expanded to include middle-class households – will soon be available to all, including the state’s wealthiest families.

Maybe just maybe, however, a recent report by veteran education policy analyst Kris Nordstrom of the N.C. Justice Center will cause the proponents of this headlong expansion to pause and reconsider.

Nordstrom examined some basic data compiled by the Department of Administration’s Division of Non-Public Education and the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority. He uncovered the remarkable and disturbing fact that at multiple North Carolina voucher schools, the number of voucher recipients appears to exceed total enrollment.

This is from the report:

“Data from the two agencies charged with overseeing private schools and North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher program show several cases where schools have received more vouchers than they have students. Several other private schools have received voucher payments from the state after they have apparently closed.

“… An analysis of this data shows 62 times where a school received more vouchers than they had students.”

Nordstrom found, for example, that Mitchener University Academy in Johnston County reported a total enrollment in 2022 of 72 students at the same time that it received school vouchers from the state for 149 students.

As Nordstrom pointed out: “Based on this data, either every student received two vouchers, or the school pocketed about $230,000 of state money for students that never existed.”

Meanwhile, in a story that built on Nordstrom’s report, WFAE radio reporter Ann Doss Helms couldn’t even find one such school in Charlotte (Teaching Achieving Students Academy) which received 22 vouchers but only reported having 13 students.

So how could this happen? How could the state find itself in the position of distributing public funds in such a slipshod manner?

As Nordstrom told me in a conversation earlier this week, the answer lies in the way many private schools in our state have come to operate in the voucher era.

Because the voucher system has so little oversight, it’s not just large and established institutions and elite academies (the places most people envision when they think of private schools) that collect state dollars.

Many schools are shoestring (or even fly-by-night) operations. Nordstrom told me that his analysis indicated that 77 voucher schools this past school year had 25 or fewer students. As he put it: “They’re often opening and closing … sometimes they’re in a church basement. Sometimes they’re in strip malls like this one that Ann Doss Helms in Charlotte was looking for, they just can’t find a physical address for.”

In short, by all indications, North Carolina’s school voucher program is not just shortchanging thousands of children, it’s quite possibly ripping off state taxpayers and enriching corrupt individuals to the tune of millions of dollars per year. Even if several of the reporting discrepancies have innocent explanations – plausible when you’re dealing with scores of tiny operations – their mere existence serves to highlight a huge problem with the program.

In short, Nordstrom’s report is just the latest evidence that North Carolina’s school voucher system is fraught with problems – maybe even widespread fraud. And if state legislative leaders retain even the slightest commitment to honesty in governance and combating corruption – much less “running government like a business” – now is the time for a thorough cleanup and overhaul of the program before any expansion is even considered.

Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day news operations for NC Newsline.