“We must staunch the bleeding of public dollars to wealthy families who already choose to send their children to private schools,” Henderson County School Board candidate Mary Ellen Kustin writes in an op-ed. “Our tax dollars would better serve students by meeting public school needs.”


Op-ed: School voucher expansion poses a unique threat to rural communities

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

By Mary Ellen Kustin

April 23, 2024

There are few things I find more wonderful than being involved in my children’s schools. From watching kindergartners learn to read to helping out with the school dance to getting to know my kids’ classmates from a wide range of backgrounds, I love it all. Great things happen in public school every single day. And in rural and semi-rural areas like Henderson County—where I live—local schools often reach beyond students’ families to serve as the heart of the whole community, a gathering place to cheer for our football team, attend the neighbor kids’ concerts, and celebrate shared milestones.

Not so many years ago, Republicans and Democrats seemed to be united in their support of North Carolina’s public schools. While they may have had different opinions about policy details, neither side would openly try to undermine our schools.

That’s why I find it not only disheartening but also disorienting to watch as today’s GOP-led General Assembly conducts a methodical dismantling of our once-proud public education system.

Their attacks on public schools include substandard teacher pay, discontinuing salary increases for teachers with master’s degrees, and their refusal to fully fund the Leandro Plan to fulfill their constitutional obligation to provide North Carolina children with a sound, basic education. On top of all that, the Republican-led General Assembly is doubling down on their harmful assault on public schools with their rapid expansion of their private school voucher program, which siphons desperately needed money from public schools and gives it to private schools.


Voucher hype vs reality

The promise of North Carolina’s private school vouchers almost sounds reasonable at first blush. The very name of the program — Opportunity Scholarships — reflects the theory that providing low-income families with money for private school tuition could open up new possibilities for students who are stuck in overwhelmed public schools.

The demand for this program has fallen short of the money allotted for it year after year. But now, the General Assembly has restructured the program so that vouchers can serve as coupons for well-off families, including those who already comfortably send their children to private schools. Moreover, the private schools receiving taxpayer money are not generally superior; in fact, they do not have to meet the standards that public schools must meet, nor must they have the transparency of public schools. In many cases, teachers are not required to be licensed. Sometimes they are not required to have a degree.

Unlike public schools, these private schools are legally able to discriminate. They do not have to accept children with special needs or children whose religion, race, or family structure they don’t like. Finally, recent data have revealed a lack of oversight and possible fraud, including multiple instances in which private schools have received more money than their designated number of students. In short, vouchers are poised to worsen divisions in our society and are a raw deal for taxpayers – to the tune of an expected total of $5 billion to private schools over the next 10 years. 

Vouchers are especially harmful to rural communities

As a parent, a public policy professional, and a candidate for Henderson County School Board, I have spent a lot of time examining the complexities of the school voucher debate. I have no doubt that taking public tax money earmarked for public education and diverting it to families who would like a coupon for private school tuition is a terrible idea.

But what may surprise some people is that private school vouchers –  at least as currently structured – are especially destructive for rural communities like those in Henderson County.

There are many reasons for this: 

  • Rural counties don’t have the robust tax base of more populous counties such as Mecklenburg and Wake. Diverting state funds away from rural school districts can’t easily be offset with local tax money. 
  • Rural counties also often lack a good selection of private schools, and the ones they do have often require long commutes. Parts of my county are suburban enough to have a number of options, but in more remote areas, the choices can be almost nonexistent.
  • In rural counties, the public school system is one of the top employers and is crucial to the local economy. The jobs that are cut due to a lack of funding are jobs that provide for our neighbors.
  • Degrading public schools through prioritizing public money for private schools undercuts the economic and civic stability of rural communities.
  • Perhaps most importantly, in a rural community, the local school often plays a much larger role in community life than it does in more urban counties. (Go Bearcats!)

Furthermore, a poll by Carolina Forward showed that the majority of North Carolinians like their public school, despite the drumbeat of right-wing manufactured outrage about “indoctrination” and “wokeism.” People form connections for life at school. School is a unifier. As one journalist reporting on the issue aptly said, the rural school is “the glue in many small communities.”  

Proposed $300 million voucher expansion will cause further harm

As the NC General Assembly opens a new session, GOP leaders are pushing a proposal to expand vouchers by another $300 million. This is money that could instead be going to improve the public schools that are required to meet standards, have transparency, and serve all of the community.

This rush to siphon more money away from NC schools makes no sense. Backers in the General Assembly claim they have to meet a new demand, but the new demand wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t restructured the program to give away money with no oversight and no income limits!

While North Carolina does not require outcome testing for private schools, we know from states that do require such data that educational outcomes at voucher schools are generally worse—not better—than public schools.

Last year, 19 school districts in Eastern North Carolina and 12 from across the state sent open letters to legislators warning of the dire consequences of voucher expansion. Similar voucher expansion proposals have failed in Idaho, Texas, Virginia, and Kentucky, largely due to pushback from rural communities.

We must staunch the bleeding of public dollars to wealthy families who already choose to send their children to private schools. Our tax dollars would better serve students by meeting public school needs. At the very least we should not be further expanding the misguided voucher program immediately after the General Assembly drastically expanded it.

Now is the time for rural school districts to reach out to those who represent us in Raleigh and demand that we put a moratorium on issuing new vouchers until all rural schools are fully funded! 


Mary Ellen Kustin is a candidate for Henderson County’s school board. Born and raised in the Carolinas, Mary Ellen and her husband love raising their two children in the mountains to be life-long learners.