By Don Martin
WINSTON-SALEM (December 7, 2023) – In 2011, I served as Superintendent of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. At that time, the school district focused on developing every school and the central office into a learning organization.
The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School district’s aspiration was for all students to meet their expected growth (as determined by SAS’s Educational Value-Added Assessment Scores – EVAAS – on state tests).
In 2011, the NC General Assembly lifted the cap on charter schools (it had been 100 since 1996). North Carolina superintendents were not in favor of charter schools – much less expanding them. But it occurred to me that if our school district could embrace an aspiration of all students meeting expected growth, it made sense that North Carolina could too.
If the aspiration for K-12 education in North Carolina was all students meeting expected growth, then it wouldn’t matter whether that school was a charter school or a traditional public school. Since charter school students were assessed using the same standardized tests as traditional public schools, the state knew how many students were meeting expected growth.
Then in 2013, the NC General Assembly created the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The original legislation required students to live in a household that met the income requirements needed to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
When public dollars began supporting private education through Opportunity Scholarships, there was no way for the state to know whether students receiving an Opportunity Scholarship met expected growth, since private schools did not participate in the state’s student assessment program.
I have always respected parents’ right to send their child to a private school or to educate their child at home. I have no internal conflict with using public money to support private education if the state could know how students are performing.
The Opportunity Scholarship program started small (only 1,216 students) and I did not think many students would take advantage of the “opportunity” to attend private schools, particularly since the scholarship of $4,000 represented approximately 75% of North Carolina’s average private school tuition at that time.
Yet since 2015, the income eligibility guidelines have increased – to 133% of the free and reduced-lunch income requirement in 2016; 150% in 2020-21; 175% in 2021-22; and 200% in 2022. Even with these eligibility threshold increases over the years, only 25,000 (less than 2% of) North Carolina students were taking advantage of the scholarships.
With the new Opportunity Scholarship funding guidelines passed this year, though, any student can receive the minimum scholarship amount of $3,300. Low-income students will be able to receive $7,400.
But with the removal this year of any limits on the family income of recipients, the “opportunity” is no longer about disadvantaged students – it is an opportunity for every student, or simply a voucher program. Even for students already attending private schools.
While North Carolina still would not know whether the voucher students are meeting expected growth, the law changed this year to require private schools to administer a nationally standardized test in reading and math to all Opportunity Scholarship students in grades 3 and higher.1
If a school has more than 25 Opportunity Scholarship students, then an aggregate score will be submitted to the NC Education Assistance Authority.
That is good news. North Carolina will not have an apples-to-apples comparison of student performance. But it will have an idea of the success of the state’s investment in private schools.
Critics of the changes in the voucher program point out that the voucher program will siphon off funds that would otherwise support public education.
I have no problem if North Carolina wants to fund Opportunity Scholarships – IF sufficient funds are provided to pay for our public schools (both charter and traditional).
Yet there are many indicators that suggest current funds are not sufficient. Our starting teacher salaries rank 8th among Southeastern states (2021-22), 47th in per-student spending in the nation (2021-22), and last among the 50 states in the percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) spent on public elementary and secondary education (2020).
I would encourage the NC General Assembly to establish goals in these three areas – teacher salary, per-student funding, and percentage of GDP spent on education – and develop a plan to provide funds to meet those goals over time.
Fund vouchers if you want. But adequately fund and celebrate public education first.
Don Martin, retired superintendent of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, has served as a professor in High Point University’s Education Leadership Department and is now Chair of the Forsyth County Commissioners, serving his third term.