Tim Abram is the Associate Policy Director of Educational Opportunity for ExcelinEd.
The 2020-2021 school year begins unlike any in recent history. Parents, (disproportionately mothers), are deciding between staying home with their children to monitor virtual learning or working to secure their income. Students returning to the classroom could experience unprecedented learning loss due to the abrupt and sometimes ineffective shift to remote learning in Spring 2020. In North Carolina, some parents and students are dealing with all of these things along with the prospect of losing access to the state’s popular Opportunity Scholarship.
On July 27, seven parents, one of whom is the President of the North Carolina Association of Educators, filed a lawsuit in Wake County targeting the program. They contend the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program (OSP) “as implemented” violates the state’s Constitution by discriminating against “students and parents based on who they love” and based on religion. The plaintiffs claim that private schools that accept scholarship students can discriminate in admissions and other policies on the basis of sexual orientation, however the lawsuit does not clarify whether any discrimination has occurred. Despite the lawsuit, Opportunity Scholarships remain popular among North Carolina parents. A recent survey conducted by the Civitas Institute found that 67% of all North Carolina parents support the OSP, along with 78% of minority parents. Further, recent research from NC State University shows that over 90% of OSP parents graded their child’s private school as a “A” or “B” despite claims that private schools are unaccountable to parents.
This lawsuit in North Carolina comes on the heels of a United States Supreme Court decision, which found that a similar program in Montana was constitutional and, specifically, that states with private school choice programs cannot prevent religiously affiliated schools from participating. Espinoza makes it all the more difficult for detractors of private school choice to prevent or eliminate these programs on a legal basis; but how this suit could play out in the court of public opinion is another matter.
During the last 2019-2020 school year, the Opportunity Scholarship program served over 12,000 students, which it makes it the largest school choice program in the state. It is quite troubling to see such intense opposition towards a popular educational alternative during a pandemic that sees parents of all racial, social, and economic categories trying to navigate the education landscape.