Ruby Steele is walking 13 students through a phonics exercise in a sun-drenched classroom in an old bank lobby that is now Essie Academy. 

Steele prompts the students in her combined third and fourth-grade class to list off words with the same ah sound as “mad.” Their responses are the only noise in the school; most of the other students are taking tests that morning. 

For seventh-grader Hunter Foutz, the school’s calm is a relief. He enrolled in 2018, when it first opened as Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School, from a traditional public school he found distracting. His class here combines four grade levels, but only has 15 students. He said he learns more here.

“Right now we’re learning,” he said. “At this point at other schools there would be a fight happening.”

The tiny Kindergarten-through-eighth-grade institution in Salisbury has just 48 students and six staff. Most of the students are Black, and the school explicitly seeks students who have struggled in traditional public schools. The school touts more individualized attention and smaller classes. Tuition, breakfast, lunch, and transportation are all free. 

The outside of Essie Academy, which is near downtown Salisbury. (Jon C. Lakey for The Assembly)

The school raised $130,000 in donations last year to make ends meet, and much of the school’s equipment is donated. Every student also receives an Opportunity Scholarship, a state-funded voucher that families can use for private-school tuition. Essie Academy received $157,200 in Opportunity Scholarships for the last school year. 

These scholarships are currently available only to low-income families, but legislation working its way through the General Assembly would expand the vouchers to all students in the state, regardless of income, and would remove the requirement that students must attend a public school before applying for the scholarship. Republicans’ proposed budget would more than double the amount of money allocated to the program to $415.5 million for the 2025–26 fiscal year.

Proponents of the voucher expansion argue it will give families more choice and control over their children’s education. Critics warn that it will allow private schools to flourish with almost no oversight and draw money away from already underfunded public schools. Last November, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered the state to spend $677 million on public education, saying the state has been “unable or unwilling to fulfill its constitutional duty” to provide a sound, basic education.

The state allocates about $7,400 in funding per student per year at public schools; if a district’s enrollment declines, it receives less state money. The expansion of state vouchers could draw an estimated $203 million from public schools annually, raising alarm bells for public school advocates who worry districts will be forced to cut teaching positions or academic programs. Even when public schools enroll fewer students, they still have to cover fixed costs like facilities and transportation, and they still need to fund social services that help the most vulnerable students. 

Essie Academy students use new personal dry erase boards on loan from a local church. (Jon C. Lakey for The Assembly)

In Rowan County, 478 students received a voucher last school year. That number may rise when all students become eligible, potentially worsening the district’s declining enrollment; the district has seen a 10 percent decline over the past decade, even as the county’s population has grown. 

Dozens of public school boards and superintendents have spoken out against the plan, as has Gov. Roy Cooper, who accused Republican lawmakers of “aiming to choke the life out of public education.”

Many education experts are also concerned about money going to private schools that don’t have the same accountability or quality standards as public schools. And they’re worried about it pulling students and funds out of an already-struggling public system. 

“This is really a giant subsidy to the private school system,” said Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center, which advocates for public education. “That’s all money that could be used to fund our public schools.”

Nordstrom worries that even with the scholarships, the state’s poorest families still won’t be able to afford tuition at many private schools. This could widen inequalities and push some families into unaccredited, “fly-by-night” schools that operate with no academic oversight and may not provide a quality education.

In some ways, Essie Academy captures both the attraction and the concern when it comes to these vouchers. Many students and parents are happy there. It is currently unaccredited, though it just passed the required two years of operation necessary to seek accreditation through the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools, which principal Latisha Feamster said the school plans to pursue. 

But the school still has to fundraise continually to stay open. Feamster said the school is trying to be proactive, and bumped its goal to $200,000 this year.

James Davis, vice chair of Essie Academy’s board of directors, objected to the notion that they are pulling large amounts of money out of local public schools. Davis is also Executive Director of Communities in Schools of Rowan County, the local affiliate of the national nonprofit that works with at-risk students in 11 local public schools.

“The biggest thing is the money follows the students,” said Davis, “and we’re actually talking about real school choice.”

Marcus Brandon, a former North Carolina state representative who co-sponsored the legislation that created the Opportunity Scholarship in 2013, describes the Guilford County public high school he attended, where he was a drum major and class president, as his “first love.” 

“I learned how to be a leader there,” he said. “My teachers, who invested in me, showed me those qualities.”

But he saw his siblings struggle, and he felt academically unprepared when he arrived at North Carolina A&T State University. That’s one reason why he wants students today to have more options—he says too many children aren’t well-served in public schools and that it’s unfair that only wealthy families can pursue private education. 

Brandon knows he’s an outlier among Democrats. But representing High Point, a community with one of the highest poverty rates in the state, made him see school choice differently.  Across the state, there are racial disparities in the poverty rate and test scores. Black students are less likely to graduate from high school than their white peers and nearly four times more likely to be suspended. 

Marcus Brandon, executive director of CarolinaCAN and a former North Carolina state representative.

“Before the police get them, before the workplace gets them, before anybody gets them, school gets them,” Brandon said. “And we have to make sure we get it right.”

While proponents argue that school choice could promote educational equity and help close racial achievement gaps, the voucher program skews predominantly white. Just 20 percent of Opportunity Scholarship recipients were Black last school year, down from 51 percent when the program started in 2014–15. Meanwhile, 61 percent of recipients were white last school year, an increase from 27 percent in 2014–15.

Critics of voucher expansion argue that private schools shouldn’t receive public funding without being held to the same regulations and standards as public schools. But Brandon says parents  hold private schools accountable; they can choose to enroll their children or send them elsewhere. He is now the executive director of the nonprofit CarolinaCAN, and sees school vouchers as an important part of its mission of improving access to quality schools. 

Expanding vouchers “will be a complete shock to the system,” but a necessary one, Brandon said: “Our educational landscape will start fitting the needs of the consumer, and that’s going to be good for everybody.”

For Dionne Hill-Wells, a Black parent in Greensboro, private school would not have been an option without an Opportunity Scholarship. Her son Tyler has autism and ADHD, and struggled in his public elementary school. 

“I was really concerned about the level of interaction and therapy, or just the level of supervision that he would have in the classroom,” Hill-Wells said. “They’re spread really thin in the public school system, and the student-teacher ratio is just too high.”

“Before the police get them, before the workplace gets them, before anybody gets them, school gets them. And we have to make sure we get it right.”

Marcus Brandon, executive director of CarolinaCAN

An Opportunity Scholarship has allowed her to send Tyler to Our Lady of Grace, a private Catholic school with a special program for children with high-functioning autism, since 2017. Each school year, Tyler receives nearly $13,000 from a combination of the Opportunity Scholarship and the Education Student Accounts program for students with disabilities, which covers most of his school’s $13,650 tuition. Hill-Wells pays for the remaining tuition, school fees, and uniforms. 

“He actually loves going to school,” she said. “He’s really engaged and involved. He’s even doing theater now.” She was shocked to see Tyler, who was once nonverbal, perform “Old Town Road” at a talent show last spring.

Research on the academic outcomes of voucher programs is mixed. A 2018 report found that students in Milwaukee who received vouchers had better graduation and college enrollment rates. But studies in Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana found negative academic outcomes for students in voucher programs compared to their public-school peers. Some studies have also found that the competition created by voucher programs has led to improvements in public schools and positive academic outcomes for those students, too.

But Whitney Oakley, the superintendent of Brandon’s home district in Guilford County, sees the program as a threat. “Families should have that choice,” she said. “But that should not come at the expense of public education, and this does.”

Like many public-school leaders, she opposes the legislation and believes it will have a devastating impact on already underfunded schools.

“We know that the pandemic erased decades of academic progress and we have to have adequate funding to catch up,” she said. “Private school vouchers taking money away at the expense of public education is simply not the answer.”

In Guilford County, 1,416 students currently receive an Opportunity Scholarship out of the 69,000 children in the district. That figure stands to grow as the legislature expands eligibility to all students. 

If half of the students who receive an Opportunity Scholarship after the expansion are currently in public school—which would mean about 26,500 students leave public school—the collective loss at those schools would total about $203 million in 2026–2027, an impact analysis from the Office of State Budget and Management found. In Guilford County that would mean an estimated loss of $11.3 million, or 2 percent of its state funding. 

Oakley says that could mean cuts to specialized science and math programs, arts or athletics, and tutoring initiatives: “It has the potential to cut services that students who come to public schools desperately need.”

Essie Academy first launched as a charter school in neighboring East Spencer in 2018, named in honor of the matriarch of a prominent family from the majority-Black town. But its charter was revoked in 2021, largely because it failed to produce annual audit reports for two years.

The school initially blamed the delayed audits on Torchlight Academy Schools, an education management company that also lost the charter for its namesake Raleigh school in 2022 amid similar governance concerns.

“We know that the pandemic erased decades of academic progress and we have to have adequate funding to catch up. Private school vouchers taking money away at the expense of public education is simply not the answer.”

Whitney Oakley, Guilford County Schools superintendent

A state Charter School Advisory Board member said Essie Mae’s failure to produce audit reports was “evidence of incompetence” and other members noted the lack of reports prevented the state from evaluating school operations. The school appealed the revocation of its charter, but the state Board of Education denied it. A letter to the board from the case’s review panel noted a lack of contrition on the part of school leadership.

The state also pointed to poor standardized testing pass rates. Data for the 2018–19 school year showed only about 11 percent of students scored on grade level—not great, but the school met its state-calculated goal for improvement on test scores while some nearby public schools did not.

Essie Mae ended its relationship with Torchlight in 2019 and ran on its own for two years before its charter was revoked. It reopened as a private school in 2021.

An Essie Academy student works at her desk. (Jon C. Lakey for The Assembly)

The board, namesake, and principal all carried over to the private school. The school cited Torchlight as the cause of its woes as a charter; Davis told local media the school was vindicated in the aftermath of Torchlight’s own revocation fiasco last year.

According to Davis, associations like the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools offer a regulatory model separate to that of public schools. To join, schools have to exist for two years, be incorporated as a nonprofit, not discriminate in admissions or financial aid, and conduct regular classes. 

But no testing standards exist. The state requires private schools to administer a nationally standardized test of their choosing, but the schools are free to set their own standards to promote students to the next grade level or graduate. Essie Academy shared that the school saw improvement on standardized tests in all subjects and grade levels last school year.

Jamie Foutz has three children enrolled at Essie Academy, including seventh-grade Hunter, who is her only child with experience in traditional public schools. Hunter faced bullying in his public schools and struggled academically.

“It was just a bad experience all around for him, for me as a parent, so I started looking into my other options,” she said. 

At Essie, his grades improved and the bullying problems went away. Foutz also appreciates the smaller classes with more one-on-one time with teachers and the school’s communication with parents. She even stuck with the school after it lost its charter. “I wasn’t going to let one mistake turn me away from what potentially could be great for my child.” 

When it became a private school, the administration helped her fill out an Opportunity Scholarship application. “Honestly, I think a lot of people backed out because they heard the word ‘private school’ and got scared, because private school usually costs a lot of money,” she said.

Melissa Secreast, a 20-year veteran of Rowan County public schools who has taught at Essie for four years, said she also enjoys a quieter environment and feels less pressure despite teaching across four grade levels. She believes the school offers the same education as public schools.

The school increased enrollment by about 60 percent, up from 30 students last year. The new students require more fundraising and more state dollars.

Davis said school leaders are helping parents fill out Opportunity Scholarship applications and trying to find other assistance for families. He noted the amount of public money spent per student at Essie Academy is about half that of a public school. And more money available through the scholarship program means Essie Academy can continue to expand its programming.

“If we’re going to talk about school choice,” he said, “those kids deserve the same choice as the kids that are coming from affluent neighborhoods.”

But there is a potential loss for the Rowan-Salisbury school district—about $3.8 million, or 3 percent of its state funding, if half of the anticipated new Opportunity Scholarship recipients come from public schools, according to the state’s analysis.

“I value parent choice in education, including the consideration of Opportunity Vouchers,” district Superintendent Kelly Withers said in a statement. “Our commitment to continuous improvement ensures that we remain the best choice for families in our community.”

Enrollment at private schools and charter schools is booming in North Carolina, while public school enrollment took a hit during the pandemic. The number of private-school students increased 10 percent in the 2022–23 school year, to nearly 127,000 students. Twenty percent of those students received an Opportunity Scholarship

Traditional public schools now educate a shrinking share of children—about 77 percent of school-aged children in 2022–23, compared to 87 percent in 2007–08. 

“If we’re going to talk about school choice, those kids deserve the same choice as the kids that are coming from affluent neighborhoods.”

James Davis, vice chair of Essie Academy’s board of directors

It’s difficult to assess the effect these changes have had on academic outcomes because private school students aren’t required to take the same tests as public school kids, and test scores and graduation rates for students who receive vouchers are not publicly reported. 

Jane Wettach, a former education law professor at Duke Law School, identified North Carolina’s accountability measures for its voucher program as “among the weakest in the nation” in a 2020 report. Of the 11 other states and cities analyzed in the report, ten require private schools accepting vouchers to be accredited, to employ certified teachers, and to teach a state-approved curriculum. Most also require schools to make their testing data public. North Carolina has implemented none of those requirements.

As lawmakers move to expand the program, Wettach has the same concerns about the lack of oversight. 

Private schools that accept vouchers should be required to follow a similar curriculum to public schools, she said, and to administer statewide end-of-grade testing and then report those scores publicly. She also thinks schools, especially those receiving more than $50,000 in voucher funding, should be subject to financial reviews, and the state should direct some of the funds expected to be included in the forthcoming budget toward hiring staff to perform site visits and increase monitoring. 

A 2017 study by professors at the University of Arkansas found that “financially distressed,” lower quality private schools are more likely to participate in voucher programs than larger, elite private schools. Without greater oversight, parents are left to monitor their child’s private-school education and hold schools accountable—which isn’t always easy, as former Essie Mae parent Shanice Robb learned.

Essie Academy fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students work quietly on a test. (Jon C. Lakey for The Assembly)

When Essie Mae first opened, Robb sent her daughter I’Juana to the school for second grade. She was drawn to the smaller class sizes and the many Black teachers on staff. “A lot of the staff could relate to my child with certain situations and life experiences,” she said.

But she soon became worried about the quality of the education, and the facilities—before the school moved into the old bank building, she said classes were held in a trailer and a church. After two years, she sent her daughter back to Rowan-Salisbury public schools. “They let our kids down. They just weren’t prepared,” Robb said. “When my daughter went back to public school, she was way behind.”

Essie’s leaders say they kept the school alive at the behest of parents whose kids have benefitted. But under the current program, those academic outcomes and test results aren’t publicly available—which is what concerns people like Wettach most. 

“We’re expanding this program to many more schools that have no curricular standards,” she said. “We’re never going to know if these public dollars are providing a decent education to the students who get the dollars.”

Katie Reilly is a reporter who has covered education issues for TIME and Reuters. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and previously wrote for The News & Observer

Carl Blankenship has worked for newspapers across the state and spent nearly three years covering education for the Salisbury Post. He graduated from Appalachian State University.