Private school vouchers in southeast NC see sharp increase as funding more than doubles

By Ben Rappaport 

Private schools are on the rise in North Carolina, and the Border Belt region is no exception. A successful Republican-led push to expand the state’s private school voucher program last year has created massive growth in the number of students receiving vouchers and the amount of state funding in the program.

Private school vouchers, also known as Opportunity Scholarships, provide families with up to $7,000 per year for private school tuition, transportation and other expenses. The program expanded this year after the passage of House Bill 823, “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future,” which passed with a 65-45 vote along party lines. 

The bill removed the voucher income cap, allowing any family to apply, regardless of wealth. It also more than doubled funding, from $170 million to $400 million. Enrollment applications at private schools are already seeing increases.

Applications for vouchers closed on March 1, and while final data has not yet been reported, more than 70,000 students applied across North Carolina, according to the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. NCSEAA predicts that the new rules will lead to a 60% increase in the number of scholarships awarded. As of Jan. 23, more than 32,000 students had received Opportunity Scholarships, which is already a 26% increase from the previous school year. 

Critics of private school vouchers say they reduce funding from public schools that are already stretched thin. Here, teacher Kazie Martin fields questions from her kindergarten class at Whiteville Primary School after reading them a book. File photo by Les High taken on May 24, 2023

Students in the Border Belt region — Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties — have received a total of 839 vouchers across the four counties this year, a 29% increase from the previous year.

In all four counties, the number of students who received voucher funding increased by 20%, and each county received at least $40,000 more in funding for scholarships since last school year. 

The largest increases were seen in Bladen County, which had 103 students receive Opportunity Scholarships for this school year, up from 72 students last year. This equates to a $56,000 funding increase for private schools in the county. 

Critics say the voucher program takes money away from public schools — which largely rely on per-pupil funding — at a time when public schools are already losing students to charter schools and home schools.

A study by the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management found the new voucher program could cost public schools an average of 2% of their funding annually by 2027 if half of the new vouchers go to students currently enrolled in public schools. Across the state, this means a predicted loss of 26,500 public school students, which would be more than $203 million lost from public education. 

Scotland County public schools would lose up to 188 students and 3% of state funding, more than $1.4 million, according to the study. Other Border Belt counties would also lose funding with a loss of students at or below the state average rate.

Last year, the N.C. Justice Center released a report listing instances where private schools appeared to receive more vouchers from the Opportunity Scholarship Program than for students they reported having. For example, three private schools in Robeson County received more taxpayer-funded scholarships than they had students, the Border Belt Independent previously reported. 

Nearly all legislators in the region have pushed for expanding the state’s voucher program, except for Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat who represents Scotland County. Pierce voted against H.B. 823 and recently signed on to a legislative support letter in favor of expanding public school funding. The letter pledges full support of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, which would give more than $8 billion in state funds to public schools over the next four years. 

Rep. Jarrod Lowery, a Robeson County Republican, previously told the BBI he is in favor of expanding the program because all tax-paying families should get the same opportunity. 

State funding will continue to grow for vouchers as state lawmakers plan to spend $4.7 billion on vouchers over the next decade. Most of the funding for Opportunity Scholarships goes toward religious schools, which make up the majority of private schools in the state. Many of these schools have small student populations.

Five private schools in Robeson County received Opportunity Scholarships in the 2023-2024 school year. Only three of those schools — Antioch Christian Academy, Highlander Christian Academy and Riverside Christian Academy — had an enrollment of 25 or more students.    

NCSEAA no longer lists how many students are receiving Opportunity Scholarships at each school, citing privacy laws. While the agency had listed a per-school breakdown until the 2021-2022 school year, it now only lists online the dollar amount paid to each school.

Here’s a breakdown of each Border Belt county’s current private school enrollment figures under the expanded voucher program:

Note: Enrollment figures in each county are based on 2022-23 school year data from the North Carolina Department of Administration. Opportunity Scholarships are tracked through the NCSEAA, while enrollment figures and the number of private schools are tracked through the N.C. Department of Administration. The organizations update figures at different times, which may result in discrepancies. 

Bladen County

  • Private schools: 3
  • Private schools receiving Opportunity Scholarships: 1 
  • Students enrolled in private school: 114
  • Students on Opportunity Scholarships: 103
  • Total funding received through Opportunity Scholarships: $386,347

Columbus County

  • Private schools: 3
  • Private schools receiving Opportunity Scholarships: 2 
  • Students enrolled in private school: 175
  • Students on Opportunity Scholarships: 73
  • Total funding received through Opportunity Scholarships: $295,082

Robeson County

  • Private schools: 14
  • Private schools receiving Opportunity Scholarships: 5
  • Students enrolled in private school: 461
  • Students on Opportunity Scholarships: 425
  • Total funding received through Opportunity Scholarships: $1,864,122

Scotland County

  • Private schools: 4
  • Private schools receiving Opportunity Scholarships: 2 
  • Students enrolled in private school: 578
  • Students on Opportunity Scholarships: 238
  • Total funding received through Opportunity Scholarships: $925,707