Research & Commentary: North Carolina School Vouchers Expansion

Published May 31, 2016

A bill that would substantially increase the size of North Carolina’s school voucher program was filed in the North Carolina Senate on May 10. The proposal would fund an additional 2,000 grants annually in the state’s Opportunity Scholarships voucher program, starting during the 2017–18 school year. This would continue until the 2027–28 school year.

The expansion would cost an additional $10 million annually, topping out at $135 million in 2027–28. During the 2015–16 school year, North Carolina spent $12 million on the program, which enrolled more than 2,500 children.

Under the program, each student receives a maximum voucher amount of $4,200, which can be used for “tuition, transportation, equipment, or any other items required by qualifying private schools.” Students are eligible for the Opportunity Scholarships program only if their family income is 133 percent or lower of the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program. Students must also have attended a public school during the previous semester to be eligible.

“School voucher programs have an excellent track record in improving outcomes for students,” says Tony Niknejad, a state director for the American Federation for Children (AFC). “Study after study has shown that introducing choice and competition only helps. Moreover, in every state that school vouchers or private school choice has been enacted, the school system saves money in the long term.”

Opponents of vouchers say they take funding from the public schools that need it most and do not improve student achievement. Voucher proponents point to a large number of gold-standard research studies showing vouchers increase student achievement for voucher students and those remaining in traditional public schools and increase social harmony, citizenship, and racial and economic integration. Voucher programs have operated in K–12 school districts in the United States for more than 20 years, and they have been around for even longer in higher education.

For example, the G.I. Bill and Pell grants are examples of commonly used voucher programs. Vouchers are well past the pilot phase, as these programs have proven successful and best practices have already been established.

“Vouchers are funded through state tax dollars, allowing parents to ‘vote with their feet’ and select the best schools for their children, public or private,” wrote AFC. “Research has demonstrated that vouchers increase student achievement, boost graduation rates, and help public schools improve. They also lead to high parental satisfaction rates.”

Recent polling in North Carolina shows voters view educational choice favorably. A Civitas poll of registered voters conducted in November 2015 found 62 percent of respondents said they would enroll their children in charter, private, magnet, or home schools if they could do so. Eighty-seven percent agreed parents “have the right to choose a school for their child that will best meet their child’s educational needs and supports their values.” Additionally, 63 percent said they would support the creation of an education savings account program.

School choice offers families equal access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires. Instead of unjustly condemning millions of children to failing and dangerous schools because their parents cannot afford to pay private school tuition rates, vouchers give all families a greater opportunity to meet each child’s unique education needs. Vouchers also end the injustice of forcing parents to pay both taxes and tuition in order to exercise school choice.

The following documents offer more information about voucher programs and school choice.

Ten Principles of School Choice
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 school vouchers are constitutional, grassroots activists around the country have been organizing to support passage of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. At least 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders a highly condensed and easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain and precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Internet and a directory of the websites of national organizations that support school choice.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice details a vast body of research showing educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together 100 empirical studies on each of these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Pursuing Innovation: How Can Education Choice Transform K–12 Education in the U.S.?

This report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice summarizes the state of competition in U.S. K–12 education. It pays particular attention to the prevalence and market penetration of charter schools, private school vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships. The effect of competition from charters, vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships on the performance of traditional district schools and education funding is examined using a survey of recent high-quality research on that topic. These summaries and analyses suggest enhancing educational competition using school choice programs would likely improve the productivity of district schools, subject to the effective design of school choice policies.

The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment
Vouchers boost college enrollment rates for black students by 24 percent and double student attendance at selective colleges, conclude researchers Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos. Their study, the first of its kind, tracked voucher students from kindergarten to college using the gold standard of research—random assignment—to compare students who won a voucher lottery with students in similar circumstances who didn’t.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers
Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice collected the results of all available empirical studies using the best available scientific methods to measure how school vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants, and all available studies on how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Contrary to the widespread claims vouchers do not benefit participants and that they hurt public schools, empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and public schools alike.

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
Examining the evidence on school choice across the globe, this paper from the Cato Institute finds the efficiency—student achievement per dollar spent on education—of private education provision was higher than for public education provision in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in public schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the one in Washington, DC, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After One Year 
This U.S. Department of Education study found no primary impact, positive or negative, on student achievement in voucher programs, despite chronic underfunding.

How School Choice Can Create Jobs
Examining five South Carolina counties, Sven R. Larson found school choice programs were associated with gains of up to 25 percent in youth self-employment. Larson writes, “School Choice raises academic achievement and reduces the problems and costs associated with high school dropouts. But it also has a decisively positive impact on youth entrepreneurship and could provide a critical boost for the economies of poor, rural counties.”

School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006 
Examining the fiscal effects of school choice programs, Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation Senior Fellow Susan Aud found $444 million in savings in the years 1990–2006, $422 million of which was from local school corporations. The direct passage of savings to school districts has a profoundly positive net benefit on districts, but not enough to enable them to compete with the high performance of private schools or charter schools.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
The U.S. Supreme Court decision Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. Other important legal questions fall into four categories: the scope of students’ right to an education and parents’ right to choose their children’s schools; state-constitutional obstacles to private school choice; the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students; and the religious-liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. This report from the American Enterprise Institute notes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but the report says they also create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale existing programs and expand program options.

The Integration Anomaly: Comparing the Effects of K–12 Education Delivery Models on Segregation in Schools
Kennesaw State University economics professor Benjamin Scafidi, also a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation and director of Kennesaw State’s Education Economics Center, examines the relationships among traditional public schools, school choice programs, and racial diversity. Although in many cases neighborhoods are becoming more racially integrated, traditional public schools are actually becoming less so. Scafidi concludes existing evidence indicates school choice is a diversifier, leading to greater racial integration in schools.

School Choice Across the Globe
Despite the heated rhetoric, critics of school choice may be surprised to learn voucher programs are quite common in the economically developed world. Twenty-five of the richest countries in the world have vouchers or tuition tax credits for students to attend private schools of their choosing. Most significantly, many of these countries have more robust school choice programs than those present in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty reports in a Policy Brief. Exploring school choice in Chile, the Netherlands, and Sweden, the study found market-oriented programs, such as those that provide universal voucher eligibility regardless of income, have existed in other countries for many years.

America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice
More than 12 million American students exercise some form of school choice by going to a charter, magnet, or private school or opting for homeschooling, instead of attending a traditional public school. Countless others use district-wide lotteries, attendance waivers, or inter-district transfers to attend public schools other than the ones in their neighborhoods. But some cities are significantly more “choice-friendly” than others, and some are downright hostile. Using nearly fifty markers of “choice friendliness,” this report ranks 30 American cities on school choice.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Nathan Makla, Heartland’s state government relations manager, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.