Education Policy Perspectives: Public Money For Private Schools

By Matthew Ellinwood
Policy Analyst, Education & Law Project
April 24, 2013

North Carolina legislators have considered a number of proposals to enact voucher-like schemes to transfer public money to private schools in recent years. During the current legislative session, state policymakers have introduced legislation that would create a new tax credit program for homeschooled students (House Bill 144) a voucher-like scholarship grant program for students with disabilities (House Bill 269), which would replace an existing tax credit program, and a voucher-like private school scholarship for families who fall below 300% of the federal poverty level (House Bill 944). In 2011, a bill that would have given a tax credit to corporations that donated to a voucher-like scholarship program for private-school tuition failed in committee.

Legislators have yet to consider traditional vouchers, largely due to successful legal challenges in other states and a lack of public support for vouchers. Instead, individual tax credits, education savings accounts (ESAs), and corporate scholarship tax credits are the preferred mechanisms for transferring public money to private schools. These policies are commonly termed “neovouchers” because they serve the same essential function as traditional vouchers but are an attempt to circumvent the constitutional separation-of-church-and-state issues that arise when public money is funneled primarily to religiously affiliated private schools.

In spite of the increasing popularity of neovouchers in legislatures across the country, research on existing voucher and neovoucher programs demonstrates that academic achievement does not improve for students who utilize them. Voucher and neovoucher proponents advance these schemes as a way to improve educational options for low-income and minority students, but low-income students are often unable to meaningfully participate in these programs because of the way they are structured.

Support for neovouchers seems to be predicated on a belief that private schools are inherently better than public schools, perhaps as a result of the fact that private schools tend to serve wealthier students who have a number of advantages over their low-income peers. However, a growing body of research shows that public schools do a better job of educating students, especially students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have special needs, or are struggling academically.

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