RALEIGH (May 15, 2024) – Two recently released reports from the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project highlight the urgent challenges facing North Carolina public schools. “How Voucher Programs Undermine the Education Landscape in North Carolina” explores the state’s ballooning Opportunity Scholarship voucher program and its disproportionate benefits to wealthy families. “Education Equity and the ESSER Funding Cliff” analyzes the effectiveness of soon-to-expire federal funds awarded to public schools to aid in pandemic recovery and the critical need for state lawmakers to continue investing in recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How Voucher Programs Undermine the Education Landscape in North Carolina”

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Research shows that voucher programs put pressure on the state budget and exacerbate racial and economic segregation. Evaluations of other state voucher programs show overwhelmingly negative academic results. In addition, students suffer the loss of the civil rights protections afforded them in the public education system.

North Carolina’s voucher program is especially harmful, writes Kris Nordstrom, Senior Policy Analyst at the NC Justice Center, because new vouchers will largely be awarded to disproportionately wealthy families whose children already attend private schools. North Carolina’s voucher program is also the most unregulated in the nation, and there is a lack of publicly available testing data for participating private schools, leaving families without comprehensive information about a school’s effectiveness.

One of the most alarming revelations from this report is that the program, which was once small and limited—spending only $10.8 million per year—has grown exponentially. By the 2032-2033 school year, the Opportunity Scholarship program will spend $550 million per year.

“That amount of money should be put into our public schools,” said Nordstrom. “With $550 million, North Carolina could hire 7,300 additional teachers or give all teachers and instructional support staff nine percent raises, just to name a few possibilities.”

The report concludes that the wisest path of action is for lawmakers to eliminate the Opportunity Scholarship program entirely by gradually phasing it out.

“Education Equity and the ESSER Funding Cliff”

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To address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on public schools, the federal government provided three rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants to states and school districts. North Carolina, which received $5.6 billion, has benefited from the funding, but there is still a substantial achievement gap. Students in high-poverty districts saw the most significant declines in test scores during the pandemic. While those scores are improving, the looming ESSER funding cliff could threaten to undo the hard-won gains. Schools have until January 2025 to liquidate their funds unless they get federal approval for an extension, which could push this date to January 2026.

The solution: Implement the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan
Both reports present a snapshot of the funding crisis facing North Carolina public schools, which threatens to worsen racial and economic inequity. The Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan offers a solution—fully funding public education.

The Leandro Plan is a detailed roadmap of education policy for lawmakers, and the funding for the Plan is already available thanks to billions of dollars in unused revenue. The Plan would:

– Provide qualified and diverse teachers and principals in every school to address rising teacher vacancy and turnover rates

– Provide a school funding system that’s adequate and equitable

– Ensure schools are equipped with enough nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers to address students’ mental health challenges

– Ensure there are adequate facilities, technology, and materials to meet students’ needs and ensure safe and healthy learning environments

– Invest in a high-quality early education system to ensure children start school ready to learn and support our state’s workforce