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Conservative school vouchers supporter says NC expansion goes too far

Kindergarteners in a Spanish class at Trinity Episcopal.
Ann Doss Helms
Kindergarteners in a Spanish class at Trinity Episcopal School, which takes Opportunity Scholarships.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says he’s a fan of using public money to help parents pay private school tuition. He has watched the voucher movement grow over the last 30 years, starting in the early 1990s as an alternative to public schools in a few deeply troubled urban districts.

Today, according to Ed Choice, 16 states have voucher programs. North Carolina is joining a handful that has switched from helping poor and working-class families afford alternatives toproviding “backpack funding” — public money that follows the child — to any family sending kids to private school.

That concerns Petrilli. He recently wrote an article saying an important debate is brewing in the school choice community — “how to balance the drive for educational freedom with other essential values, including fairness and fiscal responsibility. Simply put: Must the expansion of school choice result in windfalls for America’s wealthiest families, particularly those that already send their children to fancy private schools? Especially when that means blowing big holes in state budgets?”

North Carolina’s General Assembly last year removed income caps for Opportunity Scholarships and opened them to families who had already enrolled their kids in private schools without public assistance. That brought a tsunami of applications, including almost 13,000 from families earning $260,000 or more for a family of four. Now lawmakers are sprinting toward approval of a budget revision that would add $248 million in 2024-25 — and about $1.8 billion in the seven years after that — to ensure there’s enough money to meet that demand.

Petrilli told me that’s a bad idea. “I don’t understand the argument, as a fiscal conservative, for why we should be subsidizing private school education for the wealthiest families,” he said. He says it’s fine to include working-class and middle-class families, “but once you get well into the middle class, and certainly at the tippety-tippety top, it just feels like a giveaway to the rich.”

Weighing politics, opportunity and spending

Petrilli says the strongest argument he’s heard for universal vouchers is a political one: If more people, including the politically powerful, stand to benefit from a program, that program becomes stronger.

And North Carolina’s voucher expansion doesn’t appear to be blowing a hole in the budget, with the state running a billion-dollar surplus for the coming year. But good times never last. Petrilli says when a slump comes, North Carolina’s GOP leaders could find themselves having to justify big spending for wealthy families. For 2024-25 even the wealthiest families can get about $3,300 per child per year. Multiply that by two or three children over the course of several years and it adds up to a hefty public subsidy, he said.

“To give the CEO over $100,000 over the course of their children’s education, it just seems like there’s much better uses of that money,” Petrilli said.

Opponents of voucher expansion, including Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and several Democratic legislators, argue that one better use is raising pay for public school teachers and otherwise pumping more money into the public schools that serve the vast majority of North Carolina’s students.

Petrilli describes himself as a former Reagan Republican and “never-Trump conservative” who is now registered independent. He says there’s tension on the right between people who see public schools as an arm of government that can’t be trusted and those who see them as civic institutions that should be protected. “Public schools are still overwhelmingly popular,” he said.

The balance between subsidizing private school options and supporting public education came up when I joined a panel discussing Opportunity Scholarships on WUNC’s Due South program. It aired on Monday, and you can listen on demand here. WUNC’s Liz Schlemmer and I talk about what we’ve seen as reporters covering the debate (spoiler: I believe most North Carolinians support public schools and school choice, with the challenge arising when we try to hash out what that means). Brian Jodice of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina and Lauren Fox of the Public School Forum of North Carolina weigh in with advocacy views.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.