For low-income families thinking about moving their children from public to private school next year, now is the time to get serious about planning.
The state is taking applications through Feb. 25 for new opportunity scholarships of up to $4,200 a year. Students eligible for free and reduced lunches, which translates to an income of $43,568 for a family of four, can file for the publicly-funded scholarships. Find the application and other information, including a list of N.C. private schools, at this link. There are also public grants available for students with disabilities going into private schools; get details here.
There are lingering uncertainties about the opportunity scholarship program, including, as Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer reported, lawsuits to get it blocked. And families' plans may be uncertain at this point, too. But if there's even a chance your kids might benefit from this program, it makes sense to apply -- and to be checking out private schools to see what might work for your child and whether additional aid is available.
Here's how it works: The state will look at all the applications filed by Feb. 25. If the $10 million set aside to cover the scholarships (enough for about 2,400 students) isn't enough, there will be a lottery. The state will announce recipients on March 3. You don't have to have a private-school acceptance in hand at that point; recipients have until July 15 to choose a school and offer evidence that the child has been accepted to claim the money. As many have noted, $4,200 won't cover tuition at most schools in the Charlotte area, but if you find one that's cheaper the scholarship covers only the tuition total.
Remember, students who are already in private schools or being home-schooled this year don't qualify. The scholarships are reserved for those seeking alternatives to their current public schools (that includes charters). Qualifying for a scholarship doesn't guarantee acceptance; private schools retain the right to reject any student.
Opponents say this program is draining $10 million in desperately needed money for public education and transferring it to schools that can pick and choose their students without meeting any kind of academic standards. Private schools, including religious ones, can offer whatever kind of curriculum they choose, and there's no standard, publicly mandated data available like there is for public schools.
Allison says the ultimate accountability lies with families: "They are empowered for the first time to choose. We have to give them some credit for common sense."
Nor, he says, is the goal to skim 2,400 of the best low-income students from public schools. Some families may explore private schools and realize their public school is better. But at that point it's a choice, not a default, he says.
There's one more big reason to apply this month: Once you get an opportunity scholarship, it continues each year that the students remains in the private school, Allison says. In coming years, new applicants will have to compete for the money that remains.