North Carolina’s voucher plan diverts vast amounts of public money to private schools, many of which provide substandard education and engage in open discrimination. Weakening public schools in the process, the scheme violates the universal right to education.

Thirteen-year-old Emerson enters Reedy Creek Middle School in Wake County, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Susan Book)

Susan Book says that, in theory, she “should be the poster child for private school choice” because of the “hell” her family went through at her son Emerson’s Wake County, North Carolina, public schools. Between kindergarten and fifth grade, Emerson, who has autism, experienced inappropriate and harsh discipline, segregation from nondisabled students, and extended removal from school through a program called Home/Hospital.

During this ordeal, Book began researching a statewide voucher program that allows parents of disabled students to apply for state funding for private education and therapies — provided they unenroll in public school. But the Wake County schools set up for autism all had gargantuan wait lists. And, Book was shocked to discover, many of the other private schools designated for special education didn’t even have a trained special education teacher on staff.

North Carolina has another, larger voucher plan — the Opportunity Scholarship — that has been publicly subsidizing private schools since 2014. But many of the nondisability-specific schools simply refuse to enroll children with disabilities, while others add upcharges for special learning needs. One of the modifications Emerson depends on is a one-on-one aid to help him access the curriculum. In public school, this service is free and guaranteed through his legally binding Individualized Education Program (IEP). But in the Wake County private schools that would theoretically accept someone like him, Book told Jacobin, a one-on-one was $15 an hour, on top of pricey tuition that already exceeded what either voucher program would cover.

While Book was reaching the conclusion that vouchers offer parents like her false hope, her state legislature was working to rapidly expand them — despite the lack of evidence that they help marginalized students, as initially promised. Research across numerous states shows that vouchers artificially prop up inferior or subprime private schools, while enabling rampant fraud and waste. A 2023 study, for instance, found forty-three examples of North Carolina private schools claiming more vouchers than students.

Last fall, North Carolina became the tenth state to universalize its private school voucher plan. Starting next year, even ultrawealthy parents who have never dreamed of enrolling their kids in public school can begin cashing in on the program. It’s a policy that will drive racial and economic segregation while enabling widespread discrimination against kids like Emerson. Above all, it will drain the pool of funding available to the already cash-strapped public schools that accept all North Carolina students.

Taxpayer-Funded Discrimination

The term “vouchers” refers to various programs that divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools and into the hands of unregulated private operators. Since Milwaukee enacted the first modern voucher plan in 1989, researchers have collected a mountain of data showing that vouchers do not improve educational outcomes.

The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.

In fact, researchers are seeing the opposite. In a review of the scholarship, leading voucher expert Joshua Cowen found that leaving public school on a voucher caused learning loss on par with or greater than the losses seen from catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes sense when we consider that voucher schools tend to be unfettered by the accountability requirements (e.g., teacher certification, minimum numbers of school days, mandated curriculum) that govern public schools. As one North Carolina judge put it in a subsequently overturned ruling, “The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.”

The Opportunity Scholarships program was originally sold as an escape hatch for economically disadvantaged students attending so-called failing public schools. But data from other states with universal programs show that vouchers are primarily being claimed by privileged parents whose children have never attended public school. As Sarah Montgomery, senior policy advocate with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, told Jacobin, “They’ve completely ripped off the mask of any intention they purported to have around equity.”

This flagrant disregard for equity is evident in how easy North Carolina has made it for taxpayer dollars to flow to schools that openly discriminate against federally protected categories of students. As Book discovered, private schools frequently deny admission to kids like Emerson with special needs. In fact, church-run private schools are even exempt from Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements such as wheelchair accessibility.

Last school year, 85.6 percent of North Carolina voucher dollars went to Christian schools, many of which teach a radical fundamentalist curriculum and use admissions criteria and “lifestyle policies” to discriminate against LGBTQ kids and families. To give just one of many alarming examples, Fayetteville Christian School, which collected $1,336,793 in taxpayer money last year, states in its handbook that it “will not admit families that engage in . . . sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, or other behaviors that Scripture defines as deviant and perverted.”

Religious schools can also discriminate against families on the basis of faith and religious adherence, rejecting students like Emerson, who identifies as an atheist. The extremist viewpoints espoused by these schools are alienating to broad swaths of the public whose tax dollars subsidize them: “I grew up in a very pious evangelical home,” Book told Jacobin, “and I found their curriculums shocking. It doesn’t reflect our state as a whole and really doesn’t reflect most Christians either.”

Because high-quality private schools can cost three or four times voucher value and generally aren’t located in low-wealth areas, poor children are weeded out by default.

North Carolina law bars private schools from engaging in race- or nationality-based discrimination. But private schools are under no obligation to provide the resources that a diverse student body requires, such as instruction for English learners, free lunch, or transportation. Because high-quality private schools can cost three or four times voucher value and generally aren’t located in low-wealth areas, poor children are weeded out by default. As Heather Koons of the advocacy group Public Schools First NC, explained to Jacobin, “In Wake County, some of the most expensive private schools have zero voucher students because they don’t need to. They already have a wait list of super wealthy people.”

Additionally, the absence of transparency and reporting requirements make it likely that private schools could engage in illegal discrimination or create hostile environments for minority students, without repercussions. Mariah Manley, a student activist who recently graduated from Fayetteville public schools, told Jacobin that a friend of hers who used a voucher to attend a private middle school returned to the public system with “horror stories” of being the only black person in class, ridiculed for her hairstyle and accent.

Massive Resistance

This relationship between vouchers and discrimination is not surprising, given that vouchers were first pitched following the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, as a way to allow Southern states to defy the federal desegregation mandate. Lawmakers across the region signed onto the Southern Manifesto, adopting so-called massive resistance policies that involved disfiguring and in some cases dismantling public schools while providing grants for white parents to send their children to Christian “segregation academies” on the public dime. North Carolina’s Pearsall Plan sought to lure white families away from integrated public schools with state-funded private tuition payments. As Rodney Pierce, a Halifax County public school teacher and primary source historian, quipped to Jacobin: “If that doesn’t sound like the Opportunity Scholarship in a nutshell, then what does?”

When parents opt to navigate their children’s education in the essentially powerless role of private consumers, they are subject to the whims of the market.

North Carolina and other Southern states ultimately saw their massive resistance policies overturned in federal courts, but segregation academies still exist today. Pierce told Jacobin about numerous examples in his region, including Halifax Academy, which he said siphons privileged white students and their state education funds (via Opportunity Scholarships) away from Halifax’s under-resourced, majority-black public schools.

Across the United States, school privatization has done more to foster resegregation than to counteract it. Charter schools, which are revealing themselves to be more private than public, have enabled significant white flight from North Carolina’s public districts. Hobgood Academy, for example, began as a segregation academy back in 1969 and was recently allowed to convert to a charter — apparently organized with the goal of helping white students flee Halifax County Public Schools.

North Carolina parent Susan Book cohosts a podcast with Renee Sekel called Advocacy Bites, which focuses on North Carolina schools and the right-wing privatization agenda. (Courtesy of Scott Pope)

Like many charter schools, voucher-supported private schools can use “classical education” or “back-to-basics” branding to market themselves to conservatives, meaning that they promote political and ideological polarization, along with racial and economic segregation and segregation based on disability status. That last one hits home for Book because, she said, “There’s a deep history of disability parents who fought for inclusion in public schools, so that their kids weren’t just doing menial tasks in some basement.”

“I have civil rights in public school,” Emerson told Jacobin. Consequently, when his needs weren’t being met, his family was able to pursue an escalating series of concrete remedies through the public school system. But when parents opt instead to navigate their children’s education in the essentially powerless role of private consumers, they are subject to the whims of the market.

A Sound and Basic Education

Before the Civil War, about one-third of North Carolina’s population was enslaved, meaning that they were brutally and systematically denied the right to educate themselves. Following the war, Southern states were required to rewrite their constitutions before they could be readmitted into the Union. So in 1868, a coalition of North Carolina legislators, including formerly enslaved men who had taught themselves to read under perilous circumstances, came together to frame a constitution that codified the right to a “sound and basic education” for all children: a radical notion for its time. Today, North Carolina remains the only US state to guarantee education in its Declaration of Rights.

But in 1994, school districts, parents, and students in five low-wealth, rural counties — including Pierce’s home — filed a lawsuit alleging that the state had broken its constitutional promise to these counties’ children. Twice, in 1997 and 2004, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Leandro v. The State of North Carolina, affirming that the state must ensure that all students have access to essential educational resources. But as with school integration, the legislature has resisted these rulings at every turn.

In 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered the General Assembly to fund years two and three of the Leandro Plan for school remediation, in what Montgomery told Jacobin represents “one of the strongest civil rights rulings across the US.” But last year, state officials filed lawsuits to block the transfer of funds. And the state’s Supreme Court, with a bold new conservative majority that includes the Senate president’s son, has agreed to rehear arguments related to Leandro on February 22 of this year. “They could well overturn the right to an education in North Carolina,” warned Renee Sekel, a Wake County public school mom, attorney, and cofounder with Book of the group Save Our Schools North Carolina.

Pierce, whose home of Halifax County counted one of the highest enslaved populations during the antebellum period, told Jacobin that the legislature’s decision to expand Opportunity Scholarships while standing in defiance of the Leandro rulings is “a slap in the face to the legacy of those black men and those white men who worked on that state constitution back in 1868.” Pierce has run for school board in Halifax, served on Governor Roy Cooper’s Teacher Advisory Committee, and is currently running for North Carolina House of Representatives. He said he takes the legislature’s refusal to release the Leandro funds personally:

The Leandro lawsuit was filed right down the street when I was a sophomore in Halifax County schools. I get older and the loss still isn’t resolved, and now my children are students in Halifax County schools. So not only am I a Leandro kid, my children are Leandro kids.

Hardening Schools

Despite its unpopularity, the Opportunity Scholarship program enjoys almost unheard-of recurrent funding, guaranteed to increase each year until 2031, when it will surpass a half billion dollars. Meanwhile, as Sekel told Jacobin, “Public schools don’t even know until four months into the school year whether they’re going to be able to cover the budget that we were required to pass in May.” North Carolina has the worst school funding effort in the United States, and the legislature has been busy making new cuts. State special education aid, inappropriately capped at 13 percent of students, perpetually falls short of schools’ needs.

Back in 2019, Book wrote on her blog that she’d “lost faith” that Emerson’s school would comply with his IEP. Due to the mismatch between Emerson’s learning differences and the school’s punitive discipline, he was frequently having meltdowns that resulted in his removal from school. Initially they used a practice called school pushout, which is when parents are informed their child is “having a bad day,” and asked to pick them up with no formal suspension. But by third grade, Book told Jacobin, they were “suspending him every Thursday.” Emerson dreaded school and would sometimes refuse to get out of the car at drop-off. In his words: “I felt uncomfortable all of the time.”

Despite its unpopularity, the Opportunity Scholarship program enjoys almost unheard-of recurrent funding.

As Book got more involved in her education research and advocacy, she realized that her son’s traumatic experiences were directly connected to the chronic underfunding of North Carolina public schools. Because there wasn’t enough money to pay instructional assistants, Emerson’s school simply didn’t have the manpower to accommodate his complex needs. So when his brain misfired, exclusion and punishment were the only viable responses.

As Letha Muhammad, executive director of the Raleigh-based Education Justice Alliance, explained to Jacobin, school defunding has caused “a support staff crisis: not enough counselors, not enough social workers.” So “out of necessity, schools must respond in a way that says we can’t have any anomalies in the building.” This hardening of schools impacts all students, but two populations feel it most severely: marginalized racial groups and kids with disabilities. “And there’s an intersection there,” Muhammad, who is also a Wake County public school mom, noted. “Black students who are more harshly disciplined often have diagnosed or undiagnosed disabilities.”

“It’s almost like a ‘Get ‘em outta here,’ mindset,” Muhammad said. As disinvestment puts a strain on already scarce resources, she added, “suspensions will have to go up. Expulsions will go up. Interactions with law enforcement will go up. Because in order to maintain some level of control, schools will have to remove obstructions.” And the anomalies and obstructions in question are vulnerable young people like Emerson.

“People Need to Know”

“We can all agree that there are needs that are going unmet in our child’s classroom,” Montgomery told Jacobin. “Our work is about helping people understand the root causes.” North Carolina has taken a hard-right turn over the past decade, but Montgomery said the problems its schools are facing will be felt nationwide, as COVID-specific federal aid runs out and schools return to the same grossly insufficient funding levels they’ve known since the Great Recession:

I see this as an opportunity for us to really interrogate the question that everyone’s grappling with: What is the value of public education? What are we willing to invest in children? And invest not only in my child but my neighbor’s child, and children in communities across the state I live in.

“When my black son is in school with white students,” Muhammad observed,

and he’s provided the resources that he needs to thrive — his white counterparts are able to thrive too. Young people get to see everyone in the building thriving. What does that do for the world that we deserve?

Schools function better when they’re for everyone — because of the ratio of per-pupil state aid to fixed operational costs, but also because communities are able to come together in all of their richness and complexity. “If you’ve never encountered someone who is neurodiverse, for example, you might not realize that their abilities can be an asset,” Book told Jacobin. “It’s really important that kids get to interact with one another so they see the value in everyone.”

Emerson is now in eighth grade at a public school that he says is much more responsive to his concerns. When he’s having a tough time, he reaches out to his special education teacher, Ms Reynolds, for support.

Last June, he challenged himself to speak in front of a large crowd at a pro–public education rally, demanding that his state invest in its schools. As he told Jacobin, simply: “Public education is a better education for me. But it needs more funds to work. I’m a public school advocate because people need to know.”

This piece was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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