by Robert Enlow
Last year was not a good school year for eight-year-old Christian Houston. According to his mom, the little boy kept getting mediocre marks in school. When she tried to get feedback on how to help him improve when he did his homework, there was little response from the teacher.
“I was leery putting him in public school after experiences with my older children. There was so much chaos and confusion all the time,” said Christian’s mom, Delicia Hare. “I didn’t feel like they were disciplining students. But I couldn’t afford to put him in a private school on a single parent’s income.”
That all changed when the North Carolina Legislature adopted the Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2013. After the program was delayed several times, Ms. Hare’s dream finally came true. She obtained a scholarship for Christian to attend a private school this year.
Christian is now a third grader at Raleigh Christian Academy and was one of 1,847 students statewide awarded a school voucher this spring. That was before a judge put a halt to the program in August. Last week, the judge temporarily released funds so Christian and the other students may stay in their new schools.
The program is now making its way through the appeals process to determine its constitutionality – a decision that will ultimately be decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court. It is similar to several other legal challenges being made to school choice programs enacted in the past few years in Southern States including Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama where vouchers and tax credit programs are helping children escape schools that don’t work for them.
“His new school is a godsend,” Ms. Hare said. “It is excellent. Now is he getting nothing but A’s and B’s. He feels confident and is making friends. He understands the work and, most important, his teacher communicates well with us.”
The parents of hundreds of additional North Carolina children could experience the same joy and attend another school other than their local public school if it weren’t for those suing to permanently dismantle the program. Under legislation that created the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program, up to 2,400 scholarships can be awarded this school year with an additional 400 next spring. A judge has currently put a halt to new students qualifying for scholarships as status quo education groups pursue litigation.
The parents of hundreds of additional North Carolina children could experience the same joy as Christian and attend a school other than their local public school if it weren’t for those suing to permanently dismantle the program.
For those concerned about the legality of school vouchers and similar school choice programs, that issue was put to rest many years ago. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision that school vouchers are constitutional as the money follows the child who decides where to attend school. It is not considered direct aid to a private institution.
In North Carolina, the Opportunity Scholarship Program awards vouchers to families up to 100 percent of the federal Free and Reduced Lunch poverty level to allow their child to transfer to the private school of their choice. The scholarships are worth up to $4,200 and cannot exceed the cost of tuition and fees.
In Christian’s case, his mom could not afford tuition for Raleigh Christian Academy but was able to scrape together the $600 needed for books and fees required by the school. The scholarship covered most of the $6,000 tuition and the school offered the family other financial aid.
With so much uncertainty about the future of the program, Ms. Ware says she is trying to stay calm and follow the lead of school administrators who believe the scholarship program will survive a legal challenge and be upheld as constitutional.
“We are just taking it year by year,” she said. “I just pray my son is going to be educated at this great school through the 12th grade. I now know his future is very bright. I already see the difference in him.”
Robert Enlow is President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, the father of the school choice concept, and his wife Rose.