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Opportunity scholarships and school choice

Opportunity Scholarships (OS) in North Carolina, 2015-16

Opportunity Scholarships (OS) in North Carolina, 2015-16

As the summer begins to wind down, we reach our third month of examining school choice in North Carolina. By now, many of the students in the state considering alternatives to traditional public school education for the fall likely have settled on a school, and for some, the school is non-public. While some families can afford to pay out of pocket for private schools, this choice was less accessible to many families until recently.

This month we’re going to examine the third major school choice option for students in North Carolina: Opportunity Scholarships (OS), or school vouchers. For those not familiar with the OS program, consider this your jumping-off point for further conversation.

What is the Opportunity Scholarships program?

Let’s start with the basics: The Opportunity Scholarship program, which launched in 2013, is a state-supported program that provides tuition support for public school families who want to move their children to non-public school settings but for whom tuition is a significant barrier. Under the OS program, families meeting eligibility requirements may apply to receive tuition assistance of up to $4,200 per child to attend a participating private school. The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) administers OS and is responsible for managing the application process, vetting submissions, and disbursing scholarship funds on an annual basis.

Non-public schools that wish to participate must meet certain requirements in order to enroll Scholarship recipients, including administering an achievement test to each OS recipient that allows for a comparison of her or his results with national results on an annual basis, complying with state health and safety standards, and more.

Who is eligible for Opportunity Scholarships?

Opportunity Scholarships are available to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. To be eligible, students must be 5 or older before August 31st of the application year. Applicants must be residents of North Carolina that have either previously received an OS, attended a North Carolina public school in the spring before their application, or been adopted in the last year. Students entering kindergarten or first grade do not need to meet the prior enrollment requirement. Students who are in foster care and, starting in 2016-17, students of active military duty families are also eligible, regardless of enrollment status in the previous year. Finally, to be eligible for a full scholarship, households must have an income that does not exceed 100 percent of the threshold for qualification for free- or reduced-price lunch; families whose income does not exceed 133 percent of the threshold can qualify for a partial (90 percent) scholarship.1

If a student meets the above requirements, she or he must apply for the OS and also apply to attend the participating school of her or his choice. All applications submitted by March 1st are prioritized in the following order: students who received OS in the previous year, followed by new applicants. If eligible applicant numbers exceed available OS, recipients are determined by lottery. If funding remains after the first phase (for example, if there were fewer applicants than available funds, or if recipients decline the OS), applications submitted after March 1st are considered. In the 2015-16 school year, there were about 8,600 applications, and about 3,600 scholarship recipients.2

How has the Opportunity Scholarships Program been received?

After the Opportunity Scholarship program was established in 2013, several groups opposed it in court, saying it was unconstitutional to provide tax money to non-public schools, in part because these entities are often religiously-affiliated. Proponents countered that OS offered alternatives for families whose public school options were not meeting the needs of their children — especially economically disadvantaged minorities3 —but who could not afford non-public tuition. They argued that parents should be able to choose from several educational options.

In August 2014, a Superior Court judge ruled that the OS program was unconstitutional because it used tax money to fund tuition for schools that could discriminate in their application process and that were not held to the same academic and accountability standards as public schools. However, North Carolina’s Supreme Court overturned this ruling in July 2015, voting 4-3 that the program was constitutional because the choice of whether to direct funds to a religiously-affiliated provider or not rests with the family, not the state.

Since 2013, the program’s funding and the number of scholarships offered have increased steadily. To get a better idea of how much funding is allocated to OS and how many students receive scholarships each year, see NCSEAA’s Summary of Data.

What do this month’s visualizations tell us?

Now that you’re more familiar with the Opportunity Scholarship program, we can explore this month’s data visualizations. Much like our initial charter school choice map from June, we were able to map students’ home zip codes to their school, enabling us to see how far students are traveling to school to take advantage of the program.4 While a few schools that draw students from nonadjacent counties, the majority of students attend schools within a few zip codes of their homes. Currently, in 29 of 100 counties, none of the non-public schools accept OS and while those counties are spread across the state, the highest concentrations appear to be in the eastern portion of North Carolina.

On a regional level, Region 45 in south-central North Carolina has the highest proportion of OS recipients relative to all non-public school students (almost 9 percent of all non-public school students); Region 6 (which includes Charlotte), has the lowest proportion, at just under 3 percent. The region with the fewest non-public options for OS students is Region 1, where there are seven counties (out of fifteen) with no private schools at all, and one more county with no participating private schools.

Finally, this month’s chart shows the counties with the highest proportion of OS recipients, relative to all private school students in the county. In several counties, 10 percent or more of the total population of private school students are OS recipients, but note that in some cases these proportions may vary a lot from year to year because their total numbers of private school students of any type are low, and a change of even just one or two OS recipients can change the percentages significantly. Of those counties with more than 100 total private school students, the county with the highest proportion of OS students is Onslow County (13 percent).

There appears to be a growing awareness of the Opportunity Scholarship program among non-public schools across the state. Considering differences in the number and proportion of OS recipients by geography and within different groups of students helps us begin to gain some understanding of the program’s early impact, but because the program is still relatively new, many of the longer-term impacts are unknown. For example, one question that we may not be able to answer for a while is how the OS program will impact the public schools students come from as well as the non-public schools in which they enroll.

If you have experience with the OS program, whether as a parent or as an expert in the field of school choice, we’d love to hear your thoughts, so please share them with us in the comments.

Show 5 footnotes

  1.  See: NCSEAA’s “Opportunity Scholarship Program: Information for Parents and School Administrators”.
  2.  For more statistics about the program since inception in 2013, see this Summary of Data from NCSEAA.
  3.  For an interesting article and visualization about this topic, see this article.
  4.  As we did in June with our charter school maps, to maintain privacy, we used data with no individual identifying information — only zip code and school attended. To further reduce the possibility of identifying an individual student in a zip code region with a small number of Opportunity Scholarship recipients, areas with less than six students share a broad label: “five or fewer students.”
  5.  Region 4 includes: Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Hoke, Montgomery, Moore, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Scotland, and Whiteville city districts.

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