Let’s suppose a program of education funding exists that is only given to students who
- Currently attend school
- Plan on attending school next year
- Are “low-income”
Let’s also suppose that this novel form of educational funding
- Is entirely funded by the government
- Is capped at approximately $5000 per year per student
- May be used at any school (public or private) of the recipient’s choice
Is this some sort of backdoor attempt to re-segregate schools? Is it a nefarious plot by a bunch of closet racists in the legislature to drive poor, black children into inner-city ghettos? Or is it a sneaky attempt by the government to funnel public money to legislators’ business partners in the education industry?
Actually, what I have just described is the Federal Pell Grant Program, a federal voucher program (of sorts) that has been used by millions of students to pay for college since its creation as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Pell Grants bear more than just a passing resemblance to North Carolina’s newly-enacted Opportunity Scholarship Program. Yet, what is apparently not even remotely controversial when applied to colleges is now the subject of several lawsuits seeking to end the scholarship program. Why is it non-objectionable for federal tax dollars to flow to public and private (and God forbid- religious) universities, but it is the re-establishment of Jim Crow to send state tax dollars to public and private elementary, middle, and high schools? No one accuses Pell Grants of segregating the nation’s colleges and universities. No one accuses Pell Grants of violating the Establishment Clause. No one accuses Pell Grants of draining funds from the public education system. Yet, the Opportunity Scholarship Program has been accused of all these things and worse. Why?
I would posit that the reason for such a visceral reaction is that the scholarship program threatens to upset the power dynamics of public education in North Carolina. Fundamentally, the public schools would have to compete on a (relatively) more equal footing with their private-sector competitors. Competition is generally a good thing, unless you’re an entrenched special-interest whose results are mediocre at best. The teacher’s union is (rightly) worried that many parents will leave their local low-performing public school and send their children to the private school just up the road, and that private school, will, among other things, actually provide an education to its students. The NAACP is worried that the success of the scholarship program will enable more (colored) children to escape the clutches of their local inner-city hell-hole and go on to live bright, happy, and successful lives. Their concern is understandable. After all, it’s hard to run a grievance industry if you have no grievances.
Notice who comes out ahead though: the students (i.e. the supposed concern of the aforementioned special interest groups). What the scholarship program does is provide parents with a choice. If they’re happy with the local public school, nothing is making them leave. However, if another school is better suited to enable their children’s success, then the scholarship program gives them an option. The competitive pressures that the program introduces will also provide existing public schools with a reason to innovate and improve their programs. So, even children who do not take advantage of the scholarship will see benefits from the program. In the end, the only people who will be hurt by this scholarship will be those who are desperately clinging to their old ideas of power and influence. The children win.