An image that says Vouchers Hurt our public schools. The letters "ouch" are highlighted red in vouchers. The s is a dollar sign.

N.C. universal vouchers violate religious freedom and harm students

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The North Carolina Legislature unwisely passed a budget last Friday that triples funding to its private school voucher program and expands program eligibility to even the state’s wealthiest families. 

The FFRF Action Fund warns this is part of a troubling national trend that will devastate public school funding and redirect millions of taxpayer dollars toward funding religious indoctrination. Like most voucher schemes, North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program is sold to voters with the rhetoric of “school choice” and with anecdotes of disadvantaged students escaping underperforming public schools to instead thrive at a superior private school. The reality instead shows that the primary goal has been to defund public schools that welcome all comers and siphon public funds to subsidize wealthy families’ private school tuition while allowing recipient schools to discriminate and to push religion on the taxpayers’ dime.

A 2020 report on North Carolina’s voucher program by Duke University’s Children’s Law Clinic revealed widespread problems. Expanding the program will only make matters worse while robbing public schools of evermore funding. The report found that the state had spent more than $150 million on its voucher program (all money that otherwise would have gone to public schools). The return on this investment has been nonexistent, since the scheme “is poorly designed . . . to promote better academic outcomes for children.” There is very little accountability behind the funding given to private schools. The money is simply gone, with no clear benefit to students whose private, mainly religious (heavily Christian) school tuition is paid by North Carolina taxpayers of all religions or none at all.

Unlike most other states with voucher programs, North Carolina private voucher schools need not employ licensed teachers, meet state curricular standards or even be accredited. This is a shocking recipe for failure and an invitation to fraud. The Duke report noted that one private voucher school closed without warning in the middle of the school year, leaving the parents of nearly 150 kids scrambling. 

North Carolina’s universal voucher program will foster taxpayer-funded discrimination, plain and simple. Voucher schools are allowed to discriminate against students with disabilities or LGBTQ-plus students. Furthermore, more than 90 percent of voucher funds go to religiously segregated schools, which not only exclude nonreligious students but also force taxpayers to subsidize religious education, an arrangement multiple Founders of our nation vehemently opposed. In fact, a major motivation behind the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was the notion that the government should not force taxpayers to fund religious instruction.

The expanded voucher program will also further racial segregation. While students of color are the majority in North Carolina public schools, voucher recipients are 61 percent white. Disturbingly, this racial disparity was the very goal of the precursor to modern vouchers, when in response to Brown v. Board of Education, Prince Edward County in neighboring Virginia slashed funding for its public schools — then closed them completely — and used the funding to offer white students tuition vouchers to attend an all-white private school in the area.

North Carolina is now the 10th state with universal vouchers. Dismayingly, several other states are seeking to pass universal voucher legislation. The Texas Legislature will soon convene in special session to consider its own new voucher scheme. The national trend is to redirect as much public school funding as possible to private religious schools, increasingly to pay tuition for well-to-do individuals who already have been able to afford sending their children to such schools.

“No one should fall for the lie that private school vouchers primarily help disadvantaged students,” says FFRF Senior Policy Counsel Ryan Jayne. “The intent of universal vouchers is to force taxpayers to pick up the bill for private religious education, including for the state’s wealthiest families, while allowing those schools to legally discriminate against students they deem unworthy.”

Adds FFRF Action Fund President Annie Laurie Gaylor: “The North Carolina Legislature should be supporting its public schools instead of defunding them.”

The FFRF Action Fund urges its advocates to educate their elected officials about the harm of private school vouchers. The lie of “school choice” has been shamefully effective, and now that private schools are cashing in, there is an urgent need for renewed public support for public education, and for ending rather than expanding voucher programs that have already caused so much harm.

FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations, and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues. FFRF Action Fund serves as the advocacy arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has more than 40,000 members and works to keep religion out of government and educate the public about nontheism.